French carmaker Renault said Saturday that the company had been targeted by an international spy ring intent on obtaining data on its flagship electric car program, but claimed it had lost no major secrets.
"Renault is a victim of an organized international network," Patrick Pelata, the carmaker's chief operating officer, told French daily Le Monde. "This is the work of professionals."
He said this network collected "economic, technological and strategic information to serve foreign interests," but stressed that "no nugget of technological or strategic information, including almost 200 patents registered or on the point of being registered, has filtered out."
Pelata admitted that details of the design and costs of the vehicles may have been leaked, but added that the production of Renault's vehicles would not be held up.
"It's serious, but not as bad as if it had been the technology," he said. "Whether it's the chemistry of the electrodes, the structure of the batteries, the different elements of assembling, be it the charger or the engine itself, we feel OK," he said.
Pelata said the research program on a new generation of batteries would also carry on as planned.
Top managers facing likely dismissal
Earlier this week, Renault suspended three top executives over "serious" ethical lapses as part of an investigation into suspected industrial espionage. On Saturday, Pelata confirmed that Renault would be taking legal action and said the managers would face a preliminary hearing before a likely termination.
A lawyer for one of those suspended, Mathieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of Renault's electric vehicles program, said Friday his client was "stunned" by the move.
"He does not understand what is happening to him," Thibault de Montbrial told the AFP news agency. "He is stunned by the accusations of espionage and hopes that the explanations he is expecting will be given to him as soon as possible."
The French government has refused to confirm reports that the three managers were supplying details on the electric car program to China.
"Renault will press charges and then the DCRI [internal intelligence service] will in all likelihood be asked to investigate," French Industry Minister Eric Besson told Europe 1 radio on Saturday. "At that point we will know a lot more on the backers and the beneficiaries."
France the target of an 'economic war'
Besson said Thursday that the country was at the center of an "economic war" and called on firms to boost their protection against espionage. Renault is 15 percent owned by the French state.
Renault's case is just the latest in a series of industrial espionage cases to hit France's auto sector, which employs 10 percent of the country's workforce.
Tire manufacturer Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo have also been targets of spying in recent years.
Renault, along with its Japanese partner Nissan, has invested heavily in electric vehicle technology. The two companies have spent 4 billion euros ($5.3 billion) on the program and plan to launch several vehicles by 2014.
Author: Martin Kuebler (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Kyle James