Firm Accuses Workers of Swiping Driverless Car Secrets

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – Yet another company has sued its former employees on claims they took proprietary information related to the development of self-driving cars, this time in federal court on Tuesday.

UCAR, a ride-hailing service that competes with Uber in China, sued four of its former engineers involved with its autonomous driving division, accusing them of violating the Defend Trade Secrets Act by taking proprietary information they developed for UCAR with the intention of starting a competing company.

“Defendants effectively admitted that their actions were the product of simple greed: they had learned that if they took UCAR’s property, they could obtain tens of millions of dollars of investment, so they did,” the company says in the complaint.

Yan Li, Hua Zhong, Da Huo and Zhenzhen Kuo, the four accused engineers, were all hired between July 2015 and April 2016, and were immediately put to work for UCAR Technology (USA). The company, UCAR’s U.S. subsidiary headquartered in Silicon Valley, specializes in big-data analysis related to the ride-hailing industry and now in self-driving vehicles.

The four engineers – all computer coders – began working on analysis and were quickly moved to the driverless car division, tasked with developing software code to move the technology forward, according to the complaint.

They “spent approximately 1 ½ years and collectively received hundreds of thousands of dollars from UCAR” to work on trade secrets and were given “access to its proprietary data,” the complaint states.

The defendants then stole that proprietary data to set up a venture of their own seeking a $70 million upfront investment, according to the complaint.

UCAR learned of the defection earlier this month, when the four defendants all resigned by email.

“Defendants defrauded UCAR out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in monetary payments and stole millions of dollars of company proprietary data and information that the company had devoted a year and a half of time and resources to develop,” UCAR says in the complaint.

The company seeks an order barring the engineers from making use of the information they obtained, as well as punitive and compensatory damages.

It is represented by Korula Cherian of Ruyak Cherian in Berkeley, California.

Cases like UCAR’s have become commonplace as the self-driving car industry becomes the Wild West, with developers and software engineers with experience coding the emergent technology in high demand and able to command large sums of money.

In January, Tesla sued its former engineer Sterling Andersen and his new business partner, claiming Andersen ran off with the company’s trade secrets to found his own startup.

Similarly, Google’s self-driving spin-off Waymo sued Uber in February, again claiming a former employee used their proprietary information to create a start-up firm that was eventually bought by Uber.

Self-driving cars have the potential to disrupt several industries, including the ride-hailing markets of Uber and UCAR, traditional auto manufacturers and software-development companies.

The arms race is well underway, with coders and software programmers on the front lines.

 

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