Complaint alleges engineer tried to recruit coworkers to a new startup.

By Kirsten Korosec
January 26, 2017

Tesla is suing its former director of Autopilot as well as Chris Urmson, the previous director of the Google self-driving project, and a new venture the two men have launched.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Santa Clara Superior Court alleges that Sterling Anderson, who directed the automaker’s Autopilot team, violated his contract by attempting to recruit at least a dozen Tesla engineers, taking confidential and proprietary information, and doctoring and destroying evidence to “cover his tracks—all for the benefit of a competing venture he launched while still a Tesla employee.”

Anderson, who managed the Autopilot team, was terminated January 4, according to court documents. According to Anderson’s LinkedIn profile, he left the company in December.

Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system of hardware and software developed by Tesla that can steer, keep the vehicle within a lane, and adjust speed in response to traffic.

Autopilot in vehicles built between September 2014 and October 2016 uses a combination of a camera and radar with enhanced processing, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and navigation data. As of October 2016, new Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles are equipped with what the company calls Hardware 2—a more robust suite of sensors, cameras, and radar and software that will enable them to (eventually) drive autonomously—without human intervention.

The court documents paint a picture of alleged corporate subterfuge that involves wiping a company iPhone of damning evidence and manually hacking the timestamps on files and secure-erasing others, all in an attempt to conceal his misdeeds.

The lawsuit contains damning accusations that Anderson and Urmson, anxious to capitalize on the recent spate of high-dollar acquisitions by major automakers of autonomous driving startups, sought an unfair advantage. Tesla specifically refers to General Motors’ acquisition of Cruise Automation for more than $ billion and Uber’s purchase of Otto for $680 million as examples of the kind of opportunities available to startups that have developed highly sought after autonomous driving technology.

“Tesla’s meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition,” according to a statement sent to Fortune from Aurora Innovation LLC. “This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations. Aurora looks forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business.”

Tesla declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, within the court document Tesla says it “does not file this action lightly.” The company says it understands some employees may decide to pursue other opportunities or even to create a startup of their own and is typically supportive.

“However, Tesla cannot sit idly by when an employee like Anderson abuses his position of trust and orchestrates a scheme to deliberately and repeatedly violate his non-solicit agreement, hide evidence, and take the company’s confidential and proprietary information for use in a competing venture. Faced with such extreme and inexcusable misconduct, Tesla has no choice but to act.”

Updated: The story was updated to correct the title of Sterling Anderson. who was the former director of Autopilot.

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