Hybrid Espionage! GM Takes Couple to Court Over Tech Secrets

Hybrid technology is really getting its day in court. A former General Motors (s GM) worker and her husband have been accused of stealing (and trying to sell to a Chinese competitor) $40 million in trade secrets related to the automaker’s hybrid vehicles. On Thursday, a federal court in Detroit unsealed an indictment of the couple on seven charges including conspiracy and fraud.

This comes on the heels of two other longstanding legal battles over hybrid technology finally coming to a close, with Ford (s F) and Toyota (s TM) each reaching settlement agreements this month in patent disputes with a company called Paice LLC. All of these cases come at a time when automakers are jockeying to carve out a piece of the nascent green car segment, not least of all in China’s fast-growing auto market.

According to Australia-based IP law firm Griffith Hack, filings for patents covering hybrid technology have been “increasing roughly exponentially” across much of the industry in the last few years, although the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index from intellectual property law firm Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti suggests a more gradual climb.

The couple involved in the GM corporate espionage case — a former GM engineer named Shanshan Du and her husband Yu Qin — are accused of stealing thousands of GM documents and trying to pass the information along to competitors through a company they set up called Millenium Technology International, according to a release from the FBI.

Several months after Du left GM, the indictment (which is a charge, not evidence of guilt) says the couple “moved forward on a new business venture to provide hybrid vehicle technology to Chery Automobile.” Today Wuhi, China-based Chery (a company with ambitious plans for electric cars) tells Reuters, however, that it “had no idea about this issue,” adding that it seems “strange” that the company’s name is “being linked to this matter.”

Based on “preliminary calculations,” GM estimates that the information in documents allegedly stolen by the couple is worth more than $40 million, according to the FBI. John Voelcker over at Green Car Reports notes that the automaker sells only around 10,000 vehicles per year with its two-mode hybrid system, which was designed for large SUVs and trucks. In December, the company plans to roll out the Chevy Volt, an extended-range electric sedan that by some estimates has cost well over a billion dollars to develop.

Images courtesy of General Motors

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