Tesla case against Xpeng Motors over alleged Autopilot code theft faces roadblock

Credit: Xpeng Motors

Tesla’s case against Chinese EV maker Xpeng Motors over the alleged theft of its Autopilot source code recently reached an unfortunate roadblock. In a recent update, a federal judge rejected a request from Tesla that would allow the company to access grand jury materials related to a former Apple engineer, who reportedly stole trade secrets before joining the Chinese EV maker. 

Back in mid-January, Tesla subpoenaed XMotors, the US business unit of the China based Xpeng Motors. This was seen as a bid to gather evidence in its civil lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi, who previously worked on Tesla’s Autopilot team as an engineer. Guangzhi is accused of misusing Tesla’s intellectual property for the benefit of Xpeng, his new employer. 

Tesla requested access to several materials, including the entire repository of Xpeng’s XPilot source code, referring to the Chinese EV maker’s own driver-assist system that is intended to rival Autopilot. The American electric car maker also requested access to clones of hard drives from Xpeng senior executives. 

Interestingly enough, Tesla also requested access to court records related to a criminal charge against former Xpeng employee Zhang Xiaolang, who used to work for Apple. Like Cao, the former Apple employee is accused of stealing trade secrets before joining Xpeng. Unfortunately for Zhang, the Chinese EV maker opted to cut ties with him after criminal charges were filed. 

It is these requests that were denied by a federal judge on Wednesday. In an announcement, US District Judge Vince Chhabria stated that the relevance of materials related to Zhang and Tesla’s claims against Cao was “speculative and tenuous.” “Discovery of this information is not proportional to the needs of this case at this time, especially given the potential for interference with an ongoing criminal prosecution, a concern raised by the US Attorney,” the US federal judge wrote, as noted in a TechNode report.

Apart from these, Tesla will also not be provided with images of work computers from several key Xpeng executives, including CEO He Xiaopeng and President Brian Gu. This was due to the executives being employed solely by China-based Xpeng Motors, not by the company’s US-based XMotors business unit. Tesla is not coming out of its requests empty handed, however. Xpeng is still required to produce the source code for its XPilot system. The source codes from XPilot and Autopilot are poised to be reviewed by a neutral third party, who will determine if any theft was indeed performed. 

Xpeng has been pretty open about the fact that its business is inspired by Tesla, with the company stating that had used the American electric car maker’s patents to develop its vehicles. Its P7 sedan, which was recently revealed, is also poised to be a response to the Model 3, Tesla’s most successful car to date. Unfortunately, some of Xpeng’s actions in the past have suggested that the company’s inspirations from Tesla may go a bit deeper than expected. This is hinted at by the heavily Model S/X inspired interior of its vehicles, and the fact that its website seems to be a direct copy of Tesla’s configurator.

Simon Alvarez: Simon is a reporter with a passion for electric cars and clean energy. Fascinated by the world envisioned by Elon Musk, he hopes to make it to Mars (at least as a tourist) someday.
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