Judge Orders Return of Self-Driving Trade Secrets

WeRide’s latest L4 autonomous driving vehicle, Nissan LEAF 2. (Photo via WeRide.ai)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – The race to develop reliable self-driving technology is thick with plots, betrayal and general intrigue as a recent injunction in a Silicon Valley trade secrets case shows.

Cognizant of the fact that the first company to bring autonomous driving technology to market could be the most disruptive force in transportation technology and worth trillions of dollars, WeRide Corp. has invested millions of dollars to hire the best engineers to develop its source code for the technology.

It’s a competitive landscape, with Google, Tesla, Apple and some of the other biggest technology companies in the world all firmly placed in the race and spending big to win.

WeRide has made progress, with recent videos showing their cars performing advanced capabilities – operating without a driver, braking and accelerating smoothly, avoiding pedestrians and changing lanes to pass slower cars – successfully.

The company credits its former director of hardware Kun Huang for allowing it to compete with some of the titans of Silicon Valley. However, Huang’s recent behavior and subsequent defection to a pair of companies that are nebulously connected has WeRide’s executives and shareholders concerned their once prized executive has turned traitor and absconded with its proprietary source code.

Their theory is plausible enough that U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila granted WeRide a preliminary injunction against Huang and his new companies, AllRide.AI.Inc and Zhong Zhi Xing Technology Co. Ltd (ZZX), ordering the parties to turn over all relevant computers, USB drives and other materials that could contain files Huang allegedly downloaded from WeRide before his departure in 2018.

“On the same day that (Huang) copied the files from the Lenovo laptop to the ‘566 device, he deleted several files from the Lenovo laptop, cleared its web browsing history, and erased the hard drive on his WeRide-issued personal MacBook,” Davila wrote in a 28-page order issued Monday. “Courts have found that in similar circumstances, deleting files from the computers allegedly used to misappropriate trade secrets is evidence of the alleged misappropriation.”

Huang apparently became unhappy at WeRide in 2018, after its CEO Jing Wang left the company following another separate trade secrets dispute between WeRide and Wang’s former employer, the Chinese technology company Baidu.

Since Wang joined WeRide in 2017, the company made quick progress. The company took in about $45 million from investors, allotting the money to engineers who developed a “deep learning” code which allows machines to respond to new and unexpected events by entering large chunks of data into algorithms.

But after Wang left the company, Huang says investments started to dry up and morale plummeted. So Huang began to scour the landscape for new employment and landed on the two companies AllRide and ZZX, which are somehow related.

“The precise connection between AllRide and ZZX is a bit unclear,” Davila wrote, adding that there is sufficient evidence to show “that for the purposes of this motion, WeRide has shown a sufficient nexus between the entities to treat them as closely related for this motion.”

But before leaving WeRide, Huang copied 1,192 files from a central company computer to a USB device the court labels the ‘566 device. WeRide says at least five categories of the downloaded files are proprietary to its self-driving technology work.

On the same day he downloaded the files to the ‘566 USB, Huang deleted numerous files from his personal laptop and cleared his browsing history, while deleting the entire hard drive of his company issued computer and installing a new operating system.

Davila said that this behavior taken in sum is enough to show WeRide is likely to succeed on its trade secrets claims.

Subsequent to Huang’s Aug. 13, 2018 resignation date, the software developer took a job with AllRide/ZZX corporation. About six weeks later, in late October, Huang appeared at an event on behalf of ZZX in Nanjing, where he attempted to rustle up investments for the new company.

At the event, he showed a video of ZZX’s cars performing similar advanced capabilities as WeRide’s cars performed – driverless operation, smooth acceleration and braking, and the like. And according WeRide’s expert Matthew Walter, the radar component the car uses to assess its surroundings was placed at the front center of the roofs of the cars, which is almost wholly unique to WeRide as most other companies place the radar at the front bumper or the rearview mirror.

“Walter opines that it would have been impossible to independently develop the technology for those capabilities in the 10 weeks between Huang’s last day at WeRide and the recruitment event,” Davila wrote.

Accordingly, Davila extended the preliminary injunction to both AllRide and ZZX as well as Huang.

WeRide also asked Davila to bar Wang from talking about WeRide, saying after he left he began bad-mouthing WeRide to potential investors – causing the drop in investments that led Huang to flee in the first place.

Davila said he did not see enough evidence to extend any preliminary injunction to Wang.

“The court declines to find that WeRide is likely to succeed on the merits of its defamation claim against Wang,” Davila wrote.

Davila blocked Huang, AllRide and ZZX from using any of the source code Huang is alleged to have taken from WeRide and must turn over computers, USB drives and other materials relevant to the case within 14 days.

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