Apple accused of poaching electric-battery maker's engineers

Lawsuit claims iPhone maker hired away critical employees to staff a new battery division.

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Is Apple poaching battery experts for an electric car effort? James Martin/CNET

Apple has allegedly poached a handful of top engineers from an electric-car battery maker to work for a new battery division, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.

Apple began an "aggressive campaign" around June to recruit five A123 Systems employees who performed critical development and testing activities, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Massachusetts federal court by the lithium-ion battery maker.

The lawsuit, which names Apple and the five former employees as defendants, appears to provide further evidence that the iPhone maker has development of an electric car in mind.

"Apple is currently developing a large-scale battery division to compete in the very same field as A123," according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by legal website law360.com (subscription required).

A123 Systems, which was founded in 2001 and counts 2,000 employees among its workforce, develops energy storage systems for a variety of commercial and industrial applications, including "advanced energy storage for electric-drive vehicles," according to the company's web page. The company says it has built more lithium-ion hybrid systems for transit buses than any other manufacturer in the world.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for A123 Systems could not be reached for comment.

Rumors started swirling last week that Apple is creating a team charged with designing an electric car to take on Tesla and others. Apple has not commented, but several rumors have cropped up that Apple has hired people from the automotive industry and seems poised to build an electric vehicle that may or may not drive itself. Technologies likes those developed by A123 Systems would be key to getting an electric car effort on the road.

The five employees were hired to perform the same functions at Apple, in violation of noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, according to the complaint. A123 Systems' lawsuit claims that one of the defendants left the battery maker in June to work for Apple and helped recruit one or more of the other four defendants, all of whom began working at Apple in the past month.

The defendants' departures have resulted in a substantial loss of investment and left the company scrambling to find replacements, the lawsuit claims. The complaint seeks an unspecified judgment and a one-year order prohibiting the defendants from working in any endeavor that competes directly with A123 Systems, among other things.

The lawsuit goes on indicate that it has information Apple targeted other companies with similar expertise in the battery business, including LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Johnson Controls.

Hints at Apple's alleged automotive ambitions have emerged before. Last year, reports surfaced suggesting that Apple had held talks to acquire Tesla. And while Tesla claims to have hired more Apple employees than workers from any other company, "="" of="" tesla's"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="57def7f4-b9dc-471a-adbd-7e370f19d486" slug="carmaker-tesla-hiring-apple-employees" link-text="Apple has has succeeded in getting " section="news" title="Who's hiring lots of Apple employees? Carmaker Tesla, that's who" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"57def7f4-b9dc-471a-adbd-7e370f19d486","slug":"carmaker-tesla-hiring-apple-employees","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"car-industry"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Roadshow^Car Industry","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}"> , the company's CEO and founder, Elon Musk, told Bloomberg earlier this month.