Pony.ai, a Chinese autonomous vehicle company valued at $8.5 billion as of late, has sued two former employees over alleged trade secret infringement.
The lawsuit is arriving months after Frank (Zhenhao) Pan and Youhan Sun, two former technical leaders at Pony's autonomous trucking business in the U.S., resigned to start a competitor called Qingtian Truck.
China's autonomous driving upstarts are under growing pressure to commercialize as they reach later stages of fundraising. They are still years away from deploying driverless robotaxis on bustling urban roads at scale but simpler scenarios such as shuttle buses and long-haul trucks have presented them with opportunities.
In 2020, Pony established a separate trucking division, which it branded PonyTron. Earlier this year, it formed a trucking joint venture with Sinotrans, a freight forwarding company under the Chinese state-owned conglomerate China Merchants Group.
Pony filed the complaint with a court in Beijing and is seeking damages of 60 million yuan ($8.9 million) from Qingtian. The Beijing Intellectual Property Court has accepted the case, Pony told TechCrunch.
Qingtian said in a statement that it has yet to receive any allegation document and is verifying information regarding the case.
"Qingtian Truck has always adhered to the law, practiced business ethics, and insisted on independent R&D and innovation. We have not infringed upon any third-party trade secret," the company said.
IP dispute is not uncommon in the billion-dollar autonomous driving industry that depends on technological breakthroughs. Elon Musk for a long time was at loggerheads with Xpeng, Tesla's Chinese competitor. In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against a former employee alleging that he had stolen trade secrets related to the firm's Autopilot driver assistance feature and brought them to Xpeng. The case was dropped last year.
Pan, former chief technology officer for Pony’s trucking business, and Sun, who previously led planning and control for the company's trucking business in the U.S., were among the senior employees who have left Pony over the past year to set up their own shop.
Sun Haowen, former head of planning and control for Pony’s autonomous driving in China, also left to work on a new autonomous trucking venture.
TechCrunch's sources and other media reports suggested that employees were disgruntled about Pony's decision to merge the R&D units of its trucking and passenger car businesses, but Pony reasoned that the restructuring would lead to more efficient outcomes.