Pony.ai, a Chinese autonomous vehicle company valued at $8.5 billion recently sued two former employees for allegedly violating trade secrets.
The lawsuit comes months after Frank (Zhenhao) Pan and Yuhan Sun, two former technical executives at Pony’s US autonomous truck business, resigned to start a competitor called Qingtian Truck.
New autonomous driving manufacturers in China are under increasing pressure to commercialize as they reach the later stages of fundraising. They’re still years away from deploying driverless robotics on busy city roads at scale, but simpler scenarios like shuttles and long-haul trucks have given them options.
In 2020, Pony created a separate trucking division that it brands PonyTron. Earlier this year it was formed trucking joint venture with Sinotransa forwarding company of the Chinese state-owned conglomerate China Merchants Group.
Pony has filed a complaint in a Beijing court and is seeking 60 million yuan ($8.9 million) in damages from Qingtian. The Beijing Intellectual Property Court has accepted the case, Poni told TechCrunch.
Qingtian said in a statement that he has not yet received any charge sheet and is verifying the information on the case.
“Qingtian Truck has always adhered to the law, practiced business ethics, and insisted on independent research and development and innovation. We have not violated a third party trade secret,” the company said.
IP disputes are not uncommon in billions of dollars an autonomous driving industry that depends on technological advancements. Elon Musk has long been at odds with Xpeng, Tesla’s Chinese competitor. In 2019, Tesla sued a former employee, alleging that he stole trade secrets related to the firm’s Autopilot driver assistance feature and brought them to Xpeng. The case dropped last year.
Pan, formerly chief technology officer of Pony’s truck business, and Sun, who previously led planning and control of the company’s U.S. truck business, were among senior employees who left Pony in the past year to set up shop of their own .
Sun Haowen, former head of planning and control of Pony’s autonomous driving in China, also stayed to work on a new autonomous trucking venture.
TechCrunch sources and other media reports suggested that employees were unhappy with Pony’s decision to merge the research and development departments of its truck and passenger car businesses, but Pony reasoned that the restructuring would lead to more efficient results.