Tesla sues ex-Autopilot chief for stealing company secrets

He left the company to form his own self-driving startup, and Tesla isn't happy.

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Tesla sues ex-Autopilot chief for stealing company secrets

Tesla is suing its former Autopilot director, claiming he took confidential, proprietary information about its self-driving technology and destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, according to a lawsuit filed in Santa Clara Superior Court. It alleges Sterling Anderson also attempted to recruit at least a dozen employees, in violation of his contract, all in an attempt to create a competing autonomous vehicle startup called "Aurora." Also named in the suit is Google's former self-driving director Chris Urmson, Anderson's partner in the venture.

Tesla's Model S and Model X vehicles have an autonomous driving system that gathers data from a dozen ultrasonic sensors, a camera and radar, in conjunction with GPS data. The company just rolled out a new Autopilot update that gives the vehicles even more autonomous capability. Ex-Googler Urmson is reportedly an advocate of fully self-driving vehicles, having lobbied congress to allow cars on public roads without pedals or a steering wheel.

According to the court documents, Anderson collaborated with Urmson on their venture "on Tesla time, using his Tesla company laptop, and on Tesla's premises." It alleges that they attempted to recruit Tesla engineers, making offers to at least a dozen employees. "Even after Tesla terminated Anderson that afternoon [on January 2nd], he and his partners continued to recruit from Tesla," Tesla said, in violation of a contract that prohibits employee solicitation for 12 months after employment.

A Tesla Model X self-parks in a recent demo video (Tesla)

Furthermore, Anderson "downloaded hundreds of gigabytes of Tesla confidential and proprietary information to his personal Toshiba hard drive," the document states. He then allegedly hacked the time-stamps on his laptop and secure-erased certain files to conceal the theft, it adds. "As for the company-issued iPhone that contained perhaps the most damning evidence of Anderson's unlawful solicitation ofTesla employees -- he wiped that altogether," Tesla alleges.

Citing Cruise Automation, an autonomous car company GM recently bought for $1 billion, and Uber's $680 million acquisition of self-driving startup Otto, Tesla believes that Aurora "decided to take a run at a similar fortune." It adds that "Tesla does not file this action lightly," saying it doesn't bind employees to long-term contracts and is supportive of their personal ambitions. It adds, however, that it "cannot sit idly by" when an employee violates his non-solicit agreement, steals proprietary information and then tries to hide the evidence.

In a statement, Aurora replied that "Tesla's meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition. This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations. Aurora looks forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business."

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