Apple drags former employee, Xiaolang Zhang, to court over theft of trade secrets

The criminal complaint sheds light on Apple’s secretive self-driving car project, many of which are detailed here.

A criminal complaint filed by Apple against a former employee, Xiaolang Zhang, for allegedly stealing self-driving car trade secrets so as to work for a Chinese electric vehicle startup provides a window into Cupertino’s work on the technology, said experts.

Apple filed criminal charges against Xiaolang Zhang in a U.S. federal court alleging that the former employee disclosed his intentions to work for a Chinese electric car startup and booked a last-minute flight to China having downloaded the plans for a circuit board for a self-driving car.

For the first time, due to the complaint, details of Apple’s work on its self-driving car program have come out. Of the 5,000 employees who were authorized to access information related to the program, 2,700 were “core” employees who had access to secret databases.

According to the complaint, Zhang was shown a “proprietary chip” by his co-workers. This chip along with circuit boards analyzes sensor data. This suggests that Apple is possibly designing its own chips for self-driving systems and is working on technologies which include “sensor fusion,” wherein data from multiple sensors are combined to bring more accuracy to the data.

Technical details as mentioned in Apple’s complaint “would only have been possible if Apple complied” with investigators, opined Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. Given the fact that more technical details “that’s striking in its own right” could potentially be revealed at the trial, it shows the importance Apple places on protecting its technology, said Smith.

So far, Apple has kept a tight lid on its ambitions self-driving cars program and has declined to acknowledge them publicly until in late 2016 it urged U.S. transportation regulators not to restrict testing of self-driving vehicles. In 2017, it secured a permit to test autonomous vehicles in California.

In 2017, researchers from Apple published their first public research papers on cars – a software system that can potentially spot pedestrians more readily. Apple’s work on sensor fusion can already be seen on its iPhones.

“Sensor fusion is critical to self-driving,” said Eran Shir, co-founder of Nexar Inc, an Israeli startup which uses smartphone cameras to try to prevent collisions.

“They think about the whole thing as almost a new artificial intelligence engine,” said Sertac Karaman, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founder of self-driving shuttle ride services Optimus Ride. “Taking data from a camera and a depth sensor and fusing it together could very well be used with cameras and sensors in phones.”

Given the fact that the process of making a computer “see” the world has wide application across products, including self-driving cars, it is very likely that Apple may have a large number of employees working on the project.

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