Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg

Tesla Sues Ex-Autopilot Director, Alleging Stolen Secrets

  • Company accuses Sterling Anderson of poaching data, employees
  • Anderson began startup with former Google car project chief

Tesla Motors Inc. sued the former director of its Autopilot program, accusing him of taking confidential information about the company’s driver-assist system and trying to recruit at least a dozen former colleagues to a new startup.

Sterling Anderson started working last summer on the new autonomous-car venture, Aurora Innovation LLC, before his departure from the company in December, Tesla alleged Thursday. Anderson has been collaborating with Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self-driving car project, according to a complaint filed in state court in San Jose, California.

The electric-car maker seeks a court order barring Anderson, Urmson and Aurora Innovation from recruiting Tesla employees and contractors for one year after Anderson’s termination date. The Palo Alto, California-based company also wants an order blocking any use of Tesla’s proprietary information related to autonomous driving. Urmson and Anderson hadn’t announced their startup prior to the lawsuit.

The litigation highlights a trend of voracious demand for automotive engineers working on self-driving cars, particularly within the Silicon Valley region. Small startups including Cruise Automation and Otto have been snapped up by General Motors Co. and Uber Technologies Inc., while new entrants including Zoox are winning licenses to test autonomous vehicle prototypes on California roads.

‘Startling Paranoia’

“Tesla’s meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition,” Aurora said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Anderson has a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and oversaw hardware and software teams as the director of Tesla’s Autopilot program. He reported directly to Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. Urmson and Anderson both spoke about their former company’s paths toward fully autonomous vehicles at an MIT Technology Review conference in May.

Urmson hails from Carnegie Mellon University and was the public face of Google’s self-driving car project from its early days in 2009. He left Alphabet Inc. in August and the company has since spun off the project to form Waymo, a standalone company.

Musk has said Tesla will leverage Autopilot to demonstrate full self-driving on a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New York by the end of this year. He’s endured several legal fights during his career at Tesla.

One early feud involved co-founder Martin Eberhard, who was ousted in 2007 by Musk, his biggest initial backer. In 2011, Tesla sued the British Broadcasting Corp. show “Top Gear” for libel over a review of the Roadster model, which was later dismissed. In September, Tesla accused the chief financial officer of an ex-oil services firm executive of trying to impersonate Musk in an e-mail to get nonpublic data about the automaker.

TechCrunch first reported on Tesla’s lawsuit earlier Thursday.

The case is Tesla Motors Inc. v. Anderson, 17CV305646, Santa Clara County Superior Court (San Jose, California).

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