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Tesla sues former Autopilot director for allegedly stealing secrets, poaching coworkers

A driver rides hands-free in a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S vehicle equipped with Autopilot hardware and software in New York.
Christopher Goodney | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A driver rides hands-free in a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S vehicle equipped with Autopilot hardware and software in New York.

Tesla is suing its former director of Autopilot Programs, Sterling Anderson, for breach of contract.

In a suit filed Thursday in California, Tesla alleges Anderson took proprietary information about the Autopilot program and recruited fellow Tesla employees to work with him at another autonomous driving company.

The lawsuit also names the former head of Google's autonomous car project, Chris Urmson, as a defendant, and alleges both executives were attempting to start a company together, called Aurora.

Aurora responded to the suit by saying: "Tesla's meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition. 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."

According to TechCrunch, Anderson had acted as Tesla's director of Autopilot Programs for a little over a year.

Tesla alleges that Anderson, while still a Tesla employee, pulled "hundreds of gigabytes" of proprietary data from company computers, and installed it on a personal hard drive. Tesla also alleges that Anderson tried to hide his tracks by wiping phones, deleting browser histories, permanently erasing computer files, and even manipulating time stamps on related files, "in an apparent effort to obscure the dates on which they had last been modified or accessed."

Tesla also alleges the pair attempted to poach at least 12 other Tesla employees, though they only successfully recruited two.

Tesla's suit says the company's advancements in self-driving technology have spurred traditional automakers to rapidly try to "play catch up" through acquiring small autonomous driving startups.

"Automakers have created a get-rich-quick environment. Small teams of programmers with little more than demoware have been bought for as much as a billion dollars. Cruise Automation, a 40-person firm, was purchased by General Motors in July 2016 for nearly $1 billion. In August 2016, Uber acquired Otto, another self-driving startup that had been founded only seven months earlier, in a deal worth more than $680 million," the company said in the suit.

Tesla filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, and is seeking exemplary and punitive damages of an unspecified amount. The company is also seeking an injunction, preventing the defendants from engaging in "further unlawful and/or unfair business acts and practices directed at Tesla and its employees."

CNBC contacted Tesla representatives, who declined to comment publicly on the matter.