Tesla sues ex-Autopilot head over recruiting Tesla engineers for new gig

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Tesla sued the former head of its Autopilot system on Thursday, alleging the executive tried to recruit Tesla engineers for his new venture with the ex-head of Google’s self-driving program while still working at the electric car company.

A Tesla Model S charges at a Tesla Supercharger station in Cabazon, California, U.S. May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Sam Mircovich/File Photo

Tesla Motors Inc TSLA.O claims that Sterling Anderson, who until early January was the non-technical program manager of Tesla's Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system, made employment offers to at least a dozen of his colleagues at Tesla.

Anderson's recruiting efforts for a new startup with Chris Urmson - who shepherded Alphabet's GOOGL.O self-driving project for seven and a half years before leaving in August - occurred despite a non-soliciting agreement in his contract, Tesla said.

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of California for Santa Clara County, underscores the competitive landscape in Silicon Valley’s automotive sector, where Tesla, established carmakers and unknown start-ups are all battling to be first to bring self-driving to the masses.

Tesla has been at the vanguard of innovation. Its high-profile Autopilot allows cars to steer and stay in their lanes without hands on the wheel in certain circumstances.

Telsa, citing what it called a “get-rich-quick environment” in the sector, listed in the complaint the recent acquisition by General Motors of Cruise Automation in July for nearly $1 billion, suggesting Anderson and Urmson sought the same goal with their new Silicon Valley company, Aurora Innovation.

Urmson and Aurora Innovation are also named as co-defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract and other civil claims. Tesla is seeking injunctive relief and unspecified damages.

Aurora said the lawsuit was without merit and “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,” Aurora said in a statement.

The lawsuit alleges that Anderson also downloaded “some of Tesla’s most competitively sensitive information” to his laptop, then erased and doctored files and wiped his iPhone of data “in an attempt to conceal his misdeeds.”

Tesla said Anderson was terminated on Jan. 4.

Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Leslie Adler