Google and Uber Engineer Facing Criminal Charges
Although Uber and Alphabet, Google's parent company, settled their civil dispute over the theft of trade secrets more than a year ago, the United States is now pursuing criminal charges against the engineer behind the theft of proprietary technology for self-driving cars.
According to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Anthony Levandowski was charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. If convicted, he could pay a $250,000 fine, as well as restitution fee each violation, and face a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Levandowski started working for Google as an engineer in 2007 and was one of the founding members of Project Chauffer, the company's autonomous vehicle project, started around 2009. Project Chauffer would later become Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. During his time at Google and while working on the project, Levandowski agreed to the company’s confidential information provision, which obligated him to keep trade secrets in confidence.
While on Project Chauffer, Levandowski was lead of the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) engineering team for the project. For self-driving cars the LiDAR technology is used for mapping and perception of the surrounding environment, alerting a car about nearby vehicles, pedestrians, or obstacles. Project Chauffer’s LiDAR technology was customized and not commercially available, making the technology (both software and hardware) an asset against competitors.
By 2015, Uber Technologies, Inc., began looking into self-driving cars.
In January 2016, Levandowski resigned from Google without notice; however, he allegedly decided to leave Google months before his resignation from the company, intending to start a new self-driving car company, Ottomotto Inc. By Fall 2015, he was also in talks with Uber to either invest in or purchase Ottomotto, which it acquired in April 2016 for about $680 million.
Roughly one month prior to leaving Google, Levandowski downloaded approximately 14,000 files on the project. He also downloaded at least another 20 files onto his laptop—files that had information about LiDAR and the technical goals for each Project Chauffer team.
Alphabet and Uber settled their civil dispute in February 2018, with Waymo receiving about $244.8 million in Uber stock. Uber also had to agree to not use Waymo’s trade secrets in its program.
According to a TechCrunch article, Levandowski stepped down as CEO of Pronto AI, his most recent startup company that develops autonomous vehicle technology for trucks.