back to article Autopilot engineer drove off to Chinese rival with our top-secret blueprints in the glovebox, Tesla claims in sueball

Tesla today sued ex-employee Guangzhi Cao for allegedly stealing the source code for the leccy car maker's Autopilot software. The lawsuit, filed in a US federal district court in Silicon Valley, claims Cao began looking for a new job in November 2018, and received a verbal offer from China-based "Tesla imitator" Xiaopeng …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fool me once...

    Seemingly not the first time that Elon's employees have left with ip - allegedly Blue Origin poached Spacex engineers involved with the Falcon reentry /landing technologies.

    1. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Fool me once...

      It also sounds like they have lax security, if the employee was able to connect his personal iCloud account to a company computer.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fool me once...

        Or there's a lot of Apple products being used, which is the case where I work. Locking it down when that's the case is a pain.

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Re: Fool me once...

          Company Apple kit gets company Apple accounts. No private accounts allowed.

    2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Fool me once...

      Stealing engineers (and what is in their head) is fair play. It's the stealing of engineer's output that is a tad naughty.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Fool me once...

        Issue here is that SpaceX stuff stolen by Blue Origin is a one naughty engineer furthering his career but a single engineer stealing stuff from a US company and giving it to a Chinese company was state sponsored IP theft ... apparently ... The US authorities obviously have loads of solid proof of this, just like they have for the Huawei case ...

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge

    I don't get it ... Really, I don't.

    So if Elon doesn't want China to steal corporate secrets (including designs), why bother standing up a production plant in China?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      If Elon didn't want Apple to steal corporate why did he start up up a production plant in California? Hint: Companies are not in the habit of handing out corporate secrets to production line workers (or indeed their immediate managers).

      1. veti Silver badge

        And yet Tesla is, apparently, in the habit of giving unfettered access to its entire codebase to low-ranking coders or analysts in whose career plans and movements it has no plans to take much interest.


        1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge


          " of only about 40 employees out of 45,000 granted access to Tesla's neural-network source code"

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Devils advocate but if my senior managers asked IT here how many had access to source code they'd answer 3 (or devs).

            However anyone with a domain admin or equivalent account would also have access, meaning about 110..

            1. Alan_Peery

              It sounds like you should have raised this to management as an issue -- or fixed it and let them know what you've done.

    2. rajivdx

      Because you can't steal IP in production. You only have access to finished modules/parts with encrypted software that cannot be copied.

    3. Citizens untied

      The super simplified version of the answer is that he wants to be able to sell Teslas in China.

  3. macjules Silver badge

    Amateur ..

    "Then, as he was looking to leave Tesla, Cao created .zip files of Tesla’s complete Autopilot-related source code repositories, making them smaller and easier to move."

    So, he never learned

    $ tar czf autopilot.tgz autopilot/

    Typical Windows user if you ask me.

    1. Sandtitz Silver badge

      Re: Amateur ..

      Why settle for gzip? Cao most likely used a computer made in this century.

      1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

        Re: Amateur ..

        Because its there and people like me love being lazy

        1. Sandtitz Silver badge

          Re: Amateur ..

          "Because its there"

          The superior Bzip2 has been there for couple decades already, producing significantly smaller archives, with minimal system resources. LZMA is even better though much slower. Then again I'm still working a lot with remote offices with 2/1Mb DSL lines and the much smaller packages offset the slower archiving.

          My colleague always used the old compress util until he retired couple years ago. Never wanted to use even gzip.

          1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

            Re: "Because its there"

            Generally every *NIX system for the last few decades will support gzip, so it is a natural choice if you don't want to be bothered checking the man page for 'tar' on that system to see what it supports.

            It also depends on what matters most - if speed of compression is more important than code size then using a parallel gzip utility like 'pigz' is worth considering. Decompressing it makes not much difference though.

            $ tar --use-compress-program=pigz -cf autopilot.tgz autopilot/

  4. The Nazz Silver badge

    Should he be applauded?

    What with the perceived "success" of the Autopilot, it's numerous fatal and severe accidents ( admittedly a tiny percentage of use) and misconception that it's a complete self driving tool, perhaps he should have removed all software and working copies?

    Interesting how the surnames of those involved have a common look to them too. Or is it the forename?

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: Should he be applauded?

      Given Tesla Autopilot's propensity for driving into large, stationary, objects -- trucks, bridge abutments, emergency vehicles -- at full speed, why would anyone WANT to steal the underlying technology? Seems to me that if I were running a company developing its own lane keeping/collision avoidance technology, I'd prefer to steal IP from some company whose technology works.

      Stealing the technology behind Tesla Autopilot seems to me to be much like stealing Microsoft's Quality Assurance technology. I suppose one could do it. ... But why?

  5. Mark 85 Silver badge

    "China remains the world’s principal IP infringer, driven by an industrial policy that continues to prioritize both acquisition and development of science and technology."

    The only IP China recognizes is Chinese and thus only citizens can file and own IP in China. Same for copyright. Stealing from any other country isn't a crime in China and so they just shrug it off and carry on. With this type of theft, once the info/data is in China, it's unrecoverable and can be used by any Chinese company for a slight fee to the "owner".

    1. cornetman Bronze badge

      Isn't that pretty much true for most law? Otherwise you could be prosecuted for a crime committed in one country by any and all other countries assuming that they don't recognise problems with double-jeopardy outside their jurisdiction?

      In terms of IP, trademarks are generally only recognised within a specific country's jurisdiction.

      1. Anonymous Crowbar

        Actually France has a law where they are allowed charge people that murder their citizens abroad, regardless of the jurisdiction.

        Actually, while trying to find the name, I found it isnt murder, it is any crime!

        "Under France's Napoleonic Code, prosecutions can be taken against individuals who are not within the French jurisdiction and for alleged offences which occurred overseas."

  6. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    I wonder if...

    This will be on the list of topics covered at the forthcoming El-Reg Lecture on Self Driving?

    I am very sceptical about it and a lot of the things that so many Tesladroids (mostly from California AFAIK) want like sleeping during their commute and earning 'loadsamoney' from their car while they are at work with car sharing...

    Should be a good session.


    Stealing Ip an American tradition

    The whole history of Silcon Valley is people leaving one employer and starting a rival venture with the IP.

  8. big_D Silver badge


    The complaint contends Cao received a written job offer from XMotors on December 12, and thereafter deleted 120,000 files from his iCloud and disconnected the cloud storage service from his Tesla-issued computer on December 26. And in the days leading up to his departure, it's claimed, Cao logged onto Tesla's secure network repeatedly, and then cleared his browser history before he left.

    At my previous employers, deleting browser history, cookies, passwords, any private information from my employer's systems was SOP.

    That he deleted the 120,000 files before disconnecting his iCloud account sounds like the opposite of stealing the source code... :-S

    Of course, he might have copied them locally onto his home machine or a USB stick and passed them on, but the evidence provided makes him sound like a conciscious employee making sure he didn't take anything with him.

    The creating of a Zip file is suspicious and doesn't bode well for him, but the first part looks to contradict the claims.

    From an evidence point of view, it sounds like Cao can rebuke the accusations by saying he was clearing out his private accounts of any company data before leaving the company. The Zip file is more difficult, but not impossible to rebuke.

    The bigger question is, why was his private iCloud account even allowed to be connected to company equipment? We have nothing like the trade secrets of Tesla, but no company data can be stored on non-company equipment and no private data, storage medium, hardware or services are allowed to be stored or attached to company equipment.

    We aren't even allowed email on private smartphones, only company smartphones and they are locked down, you can't put any other apps than those authorized on the device and you are prohibited from installing non-company email or cloud services on the 'phone.

    1. EveryTime

      Re: SOP?

      I'm pretty sure that you are not understanding the sequence.

      The files were moved to the private iCloud account, compressed and stored elsewhere, then deleted from the iCloud account. Presumably this made them easier to archive, or copy, or he thought that it was less likely to be detected.

      I'm very sympathetic to keeping a reference copy of things that you have worked on. But when you are copying the entire system, especially after forming an intent to work for a competitor, you are far over the line into theft.

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: SOP?

        The story disconnects the zipping up and copying of the files from the deletion on iCloud. The story makes it sound like he deleted the files first and then, later copied them from the network directly.

        I agree withz you about copying the entire system - whether going to a competitor or not.

  9. vtcodger Silver badge

    And frankly, technology transfer isn't all that easy

    Back in pre-retirement days when I had to pretend to work for a living, I did a wide variety of things. That included participation in a couple of attempts to transfer technology between players -- one of which knew how to do something and another of which wanted to learn how to do it. Turns out that transferring IP is not easy at all. It's damn difficult in fact. Attempts probably fail more often than they succeed. And that's with everyone trying to make the transfer work.

    My opinion is that the insistent bleating of "They stole our technology" doesn't come from people who actually do things. Those who do things are presumably too busy doing stuff to worry about IP theft. I think it comes from those who have lost or are losing a technology race and feel a need to transfer explain how and why their efforts didn't succeed.

  10. Gobhicks

    I wonder...

    Does anyone read William Gibson any more? See "Count Zero" (1986!!)

    1. big_D Silver badge

      Re: I wonder...

      I reread the series last year. Still a classic and more relevant than ever.

  11. hoola Bronze badge


    That will help them in deciding what not to do. There appears to be enough criticism of Tesla's "driver assistance solutions" being sub-optimal that I am surprised anyone what want to steal it or buy the stolen IP.

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: Whoopy-doo

      I think there's a long story there. As I understand it, Tesla Motors once had an alliance with an Israeli Company called Mobileye which was and maybe still is a leader in collision avoidance technology. Mobileye will retrofit a Collision Avoidance kit to your older car for rather a lot of money if you so desire. A few years ago TM had falling out with Mobileye. The details of the dustup weren't made public so far as I know. So Tesla has gone forward with its own (similar?) technology. Mobileye was bought out by Intel in 2017 for rather a lot of billions of dollars.

      I have no idea how well Mobileye's technology actually works or whether they were responsible for some of Tesla's problems.

      1. EveryTime

        Re: Whoopy-doo

        I have a different perspective on the situation.

        Mobileye started as a graduate project in image recognition. It transformed into a company with a product that recognized road signs. They added the ability to recognize lane markers, including upcoming curves, along with a limited static recognition of some objects (vehicles, cycles, and pedestrians).

        Mobileye's (and Tesla's) current system does more, but Telsa started out years ago with a very basic product. Basically the Mobileye camera system output (at low speed) a list of road signs, the distance to the next lane curve, how much of a curve that was, and if there was a recognized object in the path. Tesla took that output, combined it with other sensors, and built what is best described as a lane-keeping system for use only on already-scanned sections of highway.

        If you look at the documented Tesla accidents, you can readily see the limitations of the older approach. Tesla and Mobileye were separating before the Florida accident, but that accident made it clear that the Mobileye approach was flawed. Their static image system lost track that a truck was crossing the path. It presumably "saw" the truck initially crossing, but when the plain white trailer spanned the highway, it reported only an unobstructed lane markers to the no-feature horizon.

        (There are additional faults, such as relying on radar which scanned under the trailer, but that's beyond the scope here.)

  12. davidmaxwaterman

    Why bother?

    It can't be worth stealing if the engineer can get the code to drive itself to the competition.

    1. EveryTime

      Re: Why bother?

      Most large, rapidly-evolving systems are mind-numbingly complex to build properly, and almost impossible to branch development of.

      But being of limited direct use doesn't mean that it wasn't stolen. Saying "can't be worth stealing" is dismissive of a crime.

      And there are many situations where it's a huge advantage to know one way of making something work

  13. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    "more than 300,000 files and directories"

    So how many lines of code in that lot?

    And what is the typical defect rate for software?

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