Tesla Says Ex-Project Manager Stole Autopilot Trade Secrets

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – Tesla Motors sued the former leader of its Autopilot program, saying he poached employees for his new company while still at Tesla, stole proprietary information and hacked into Tesla computers to cover the tracks of his brazen theft.

The electric vehicle and energy-storage company filed suit in Santa Clara County Superior Court this past week, claiming Sterling Anderson – who once led Tesla’s vaunted autonomous vehicle division – his business partner Christopher Urmson and their new company Aurora Innovation broke contracts in a bid to cash in on the self-driving arms race.

“This dispute arises out of the efforts of Sterling Anderson, a former non-technical program manager of Tesla’s Autopilot team, to violate his contractual and other obligations to Tesla by attempting to recruit at least a dozen Tesla engineers, taking Tesla’s confidential and proprietary information, and doctoring and destroying evidence in an effort to cover his tracks – all for the benefit of a competing venture he launched while still a Tesla employee,” Tesla says in the complaint.

Tesla boasts that its advancements in the self-driving field have created a business environment where other car companies are eager to keep up and are willing to pay enormous sums to startup companies and engineers with the requisite programming acumen to develop autonomous driving capabilities.

The company cites General Motors’ nearly $1 billion acquisition of Cruise Automation, a 40-person firm headquartered in San Francisco, in 2016, and Uber’s similar purchase of self-driving startup Otto for about $680 million.

Tesla, the company led by industrialist and futurist Elon Musk, said the high-dollar figures were too much for Anderson to resist.

“Anderson and his business partners, including Christopher Urmson, the recently departed head of Google’s self-driving car initiative, decided to take a run at a similar fortune,” Tesla says in the complaint. “Unlike other recent startups, however, Anderson and Urmson sought an unfair advantage.”

Andersen assured management of his loyalty, but secretly began preparations to create his own startup, recruiting several Tesla engineers to jump ship once his company was up and running, Tesla says. This ran contrary to a non-solicitation agreement Andersen signed, which stipulated that he not recruit Tesla employees for a year after leaving the company.

“Anderson also downloaded hundreds of gigabytes of Tesla confidential and proprietary information to his personal Toshiba hard drive,” Tesla says. “Anderson returned his company-issued laptop, but not the ‘backups’ he had regularly created, which contain hundreds of gigabytes of data, including some of Tesla’s most competitively sensitive information”

The company further accuses of Anderson of hacking into his company-issued laptop to remove any traces of the theft and of wiping his company-issued smartphone after he left Tesla.

“Anderson’s blatant efforts to cover his tracks belie any innocent explanation he may attempt to conjure up for his conduct,” Tesla says in the complaint. “No one would attempt to put fake timestamps on files if they were innocent or thought their actions were honest.”

Tesla wants the court to force Andersen to disclose which proprietary information he removed in order to assist in the development of similar technology at Aurora Innovation, and to bar the defendants from poaching more Tesla employees.

The company also seeks compensatory and punitive damages. It is represented by John Hueston of Hueston Hennigan in Los Angeles.

Contact information for Andersen, Urmson and Aurora Innovation could not be located as of press time.