Autonomous vehicle technology, while still young, is already a major catalyst of trade secrets-related litigation. In 2018, Uber settled a lawsuit alleging theft of self-driving technology trade secrets from Waymo (Google’s self-driving car spinoff) for $245 million. With the future of the automotive market (and trillions of dollars) at stake, self-driving technology trade secrets are increasingly targets of theft.
2019 has already seen a string of trade secrets litigation related to self-driving technology. Tesla filed suit in March 2019 alleging a former employee stole source code related to Tesla’s self-driving technology—characterized in the complaint as “a crown jewel of Tesla’s intellectual property portfolio.” Defendant Guangzhi Cao, a member of Tesla’s elite team of autopilot engineers, quit his job on January 3rd after accepting a position with Xiaopeng Motors, a Chinese electric automaker, but not before uploading complete copies of Tesla’s autopilot-related source code to his personal iCloud account. Xiaopeng Motors is a destination employer for engineers formerly associated with self-driving research teams at American tech companies. Xiaopeng Motors employs at least five former Tesla employees. An engineer employed by a Tesla-competitor was accused of trade secrets theft and arrested by the FBI at San Jose International Airport in July 2018. The engineer had accepted employment with Xiaopeng Motors.
Most recently, in April 2019, autonomous vehicle company WeRide brought suit under the Defend Trade Secrets Act and California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act against its former CEO, former Director of Hardware, and two associated companies. WeRide alleged former Director of Hardware Kun Huang copied company files onto a USB and shortly after his departure founded a competing autonomous vehicle company, also a named defendant. All of the parties were engaged with developing autonomous vehicles for the Chinese market. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted WeRide’s request for a preliminary injunction as to Huang and the two defendant companies.
An April 2019 investigation by NPR and Frontline found that the White House estimates such practices cost the U.S. economy more than $57 billion a year. As reported by Forbes, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the “Chinese government has never participated in or supported any theft of trade secrets. We do not accept and are firmly opposed to such accusations.”
The referenced cases are Tesla, Inc. v. Cao, No. 3:19-cv-01463-VC, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California; and, WeRide Corp. v. Kun Huang, et al., No. 5:18-cv-07233-EJD, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Stay tuned for updates on self-driving technology related trade secrets litigation.