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Former employee sued by Tesla says he was a whistleblower

Washington

TESLA sued a former employee Wednesday, accusing the man of hacking the carmaker's computer systems and stealing company secrets, shedding light on what chief Elon Musk had suggested was the work of a secretive internal saboteur.

But the employee, Martin Tripp, told The Washington Post that he did not tamper with internal systems and is instead a whistleblower who spoke out after seeing "some really scary things" inside the company, including dangerously punctured batteries installed in cars.

Tesla attorneys wrote in their lawsuit that Mr Tripp, a former technician at the company's Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada, wrote software to aid in an elaborate theft of confidential photos and video of Tesla's manufacturing systems. They said he worked at Tesla from October to last week, when company investigators confronted him with evidence.

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Mr Tripp, attorneys wrote, also gave journalists false information about the company, including claims that defective batteries had been used in Tesla's Model 3 sedans. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Speaking Wednesday night to The Post, Mr Tripp confirmed that he provided information to Business Insider for a story the news website did earlier this month about the company's raw-material waste.

But the 40-year-old said he did so because he was alarmed by what he learnt while an employee, including what he claimed were hundreds of Model 3s that had punctured batteries. Tesla representatives have said they would not ship cars that have safety concerns.

Mr Tripp said he did not hack into Tesla computers, saying, "I don't have the patience for coding." He also said he was not, as Tesla lawyers claimed, disgruntled about not getting a promotion. "That's their generic excuse," he said. "I could literally care less." He said he is seeking an attorney and official protections as a whistleblower. Tesla did not immediately respond to his allegations.

The lawsuit adds a new layer of intrigue to a Silicon Valley giant already consumed with production pressures and internal suspicions from Mr Musk about a corporate conspiracy. The company, which last week said it would slash 9 per cent of its workforce, is speeding closer to a critical deadline to prove it can hit a long-delayed goal: building 5,000 Model 3s a week.

In a company-wide email on Sunday, Mr Musk said an employee accused of sabotage had complained about not getting promoted and added "there may be considerably more to this situation than meets the eye". He called on workers to "be extremely vigilant" and said "there is a long list of organisations that want Tesla to die". Asked if Mr Tripp was the employee he had suggested was behind the sabotage, Mr Musk tweeted Wednesday: "There are more, but the actions of a few bad apples will not stop Tesla from reaching its goals. With 40,000 people, the worst 1 in 1,000 will have issues. That's still about 40 people."

The lawsuit highlights a widespread paranoia over information theft in the fiercely competitive industries of advanced manufacturing and self-driving cars. In February, Uber paid US$245 million to settle a legal battle over the alleged theft of trade secrets with Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google's parent company Alphabet.

Tesla lawyers have asked for a court order to inspect Mr Tripp's computers, emails, online messages and phone calls. Mr Tripp, they said, had been "disruptive and combative" with colleagues and had grown disgruntled after being assigned to a new role. The company is seeking an untold amount in damages to be decided in trial.

Because of Mr Tripp's conduct, lawyers said, Tesla had suffered "cruel and unjust hardship" and "lost business, lost profits and damage to its goodwill". Mr Tripp said he was interrogated at work last week and fired over the phone Tuesday by a human resources representative. He said he learnt of the lawsuit for the first time Wednesday.

Mr Tripp said Mr Musk emailed him shortly after the lawsuit was filed to say he was a horrible person. He said he responded that Mr Musk deserved what was coming.

He said he left his previous job with a medical-device company and moved his family to Nevada to work for Tesla, believing it was "a golden opportunity. I looked up to Elon, I looked up to Tesla. I was always drooling about the Teslas and wanting to buy one. And I was living the mission: to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy". But he said he grew disillusioned after seeing the company's waste, unsustainable practices and "seeing how Elon was lying to investors about how many cars they were making". He added: "I wanted to leave the world better for my son. And I felt I was doing everything but that."

He said he did not share the information to hurt Tesla but to shine a light on potential dangers. He said he now believes Mr Musk is a "narcissist" who "only cares about himself". WP