Apple self-driving car details revealed in case against ex-employee

Apple’s self-driving system atop a Lexus RX - Image via MacCallister Higgins

Apple has been keen to keep details about its self-driving car project under tight wraps, but a criminal case against an ex-employee has outed some specifics. A criminal complaint filed by Apple against Xiaolang Zhang, the ex-employee, on Monday details a few areas Apple has worked on.

According to a Tuesday report, Apple’s complaint includes information about employees given access to a secret database. Some 2,700 employees, including Zhang, were allegedly shown a “proprietary chip,” which could be Apple’s own unit to control self-driving car systems. Zhang was also responsible for designing circuit boards to analyze sensor data.

Zhang is accused of stealing Apple’s plans for a circuit board developed for self-driving cars, and booking a last-minute flight to China where he intended to work for a Chinese self-driving car start-up company.

The technologies Apple is working on may also include “sensor fusion,” which combines data from multiple inputs to create more accurate information. The company could also apply its self-driving technology to help other computer devices, such as phones, “see” the world in the future.

More details could continue to spill out surrounding Apple’s self-driving car technology in the trial process. Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina with a focus on autonomous vehicles, said the technical details show Apple is serious about protecting its technology, even if it means outing some secrets publicly.

Apple’s plans for self-driving vehicles have shifted immensely over the past years. The Cupertino, California-based technology giant originally planned for its own self-driving car, moved to partner with an automaker, and ultimately scrapped plans. Today, work is thought to focus on a self-driving car service that may employ Volkswagen cars, while Apple continues to focus on the brains of the system, rather than the “hardware.” Recently, Apple poached an ex-Waymo engineer for its self-driving car plans and patented a navigation system for autonomous driving.

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