Pony.ai sued two former employees and the self-driving truck company they founded, claiming they violated the company's trade secrets.

Pony.ai sues ex-employees for trade secret infringement, seeks $8.9 million in damages-CnEVPost

(Image credit: Pony.ai)

Pony.ai, a Chinese self-driving startup backed by Toyota Motor and NIO Capital, has sued two former employees, claiming they violated trade secrets.

Pony.ai said in an internal letter today that it has sued self-driving truck company Qingtian Truck and its key executives Pan Zhenhao and Sun Youhan for violating Pony.ai's trade secrets, local media China Star Market reported.

Pony.ai confirmed the suit and said it sued the two former technicians and their company, Qingtian Truck, in Beijing for trade secret infringement, according to the report.

Pony.ai asked the court to order Qingtian Truck to immediately stop infringing on its trade secrets and demand that they pay economic damages and expenses totaling 60 million yuan ($8.9 million), the report said.

Founded in late 2016, Pony.ai has set up R&D centers in Silicon Valley, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, and operates Robotaxi locally.

In late 2019, NIO Capital said it invested in Pony.ai for an undisclosed amount when it announced the completion of more than $200 million in fundraising. In February 2020, Pony.ai announced it had raised $400 million from Toyota.

Last November 9, LatePost reported that Pony.ai had merged its self-driving truck development team into its passenger car development team.

Pan, then chief of self-driving technology at the truck division, which had about 100 people prior to the move, and Sun, head of the domestic self-driving planning & control group, left after the latest shakeup, according to the report.

Some of the departures were planning to start businesses at the time, also in the direction of autonomous driving, in competition with Pony.ai, the report said, adding that one of the companies had received investment from SF Express' venture capital arm and XPeng Motors.

On November 5 last year, Qingtian Truck, which is dedicated to self-driving truck technology development and logistics transportation, was incorporated by founders Pan and Sun.

On January 27 of this year, Qingtian Truck closed an angel round of funding of nearly $10 million, funded exclusively by 5Y Capital. The company had a team of about 20 members at the time, according to local media reports.

Pan received his undergraduate and master's degrees from Tsinghua University and then worked for more than five years at Google in the US. In 2017, he joined Pony.ai as the company's 12th employee and became the CTO of the company's truck business in 2020.

Sun received his undergraduate degree from Tsinghua University and his master's degree from Columbia University, and worked at Microsoft and Facebook before officially joining Pony.ai in 2019.

At the time of the angel round, Pan said the financing will be used primarily to support the company's rapid start-up, including team size expansion and self-driving truck road testing efforts.

The self-driving truck industry is still in the early stages of development, and the industry landscape and business models are not really defined yet, which is where the opportunity lies for startups including Qingtian Truck, Pan said at the time.

The suit comes as Pony.ai ramps up its efforts in the self-driving truck space.

On July 28, Pony.ai announced that it would form a joint venture with SANY Heavy Truck, a subsidiary of local heavy equipment maker SANY Heavy Industry.

The joint venture will develop, manufacture and sell L4 self-driving heavy trucks and create a premium self-driving heavy truck brand.

The joint venture plans to start small-scale deliveries of robotic trucks in 2022 and 2023, with mass production of L4 trucks starting in 2024 and reaching an annual production capacity of about 10,000 trucks within a few years.

Pony.ai forms joint venture with SANY to produce self-driving trucks

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