Former Waymo and Uber self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski—regarded by many as a father of the fledgling autonomous vehicle industry—was indicted Tuesday on 33 federal charges of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. The charges stem from the same incidents that caused Waymo, in early 2017, to sue Uber for trade-secret theft. Uber and Waymo abruptly settled the lawsuit for 0.34 percent of Uber equity in February 2018, after four days of trial.
If convicted, Levandowski faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 on each of the 33 counts. At an arraignment Tuesday afternoon in San Jose, California, Levandowski pled not guilty to all counts. He posted a $2 million secured bond, and will have to wear an ankle monitor until at least September 4, when he will return to court for a hearing to decide his final bail.
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The events described by federal prosecutors sound a lot like those laid out in Waymo’s civil case. In December 2015, government lawyers allege, Levandowski downloaded about 14,000 files from a server hosted on the network for what was then Google’s self-driving car project. (Google spun out Waymo into a separate subsidiary of parent Alphabet in late 2016.) The government says those files, plus others downloaded from the the project’s Google Drive in the following months, contained Google trade secrets, including circuit board drawings, an internal project-tracking document, and instructions for installing and testing lidar, a laser sensor used in most self-driving vehicles.
The government alleges that, by the time Levandowski had downloaded those documents, the engineer had already launched talks with Uber about creating an autonomous vehicle venture at the ride-hailing company. In late January 2016, Levandowski abruptly left Google; in February, he and Uber signed a term sheet finalizing the acquisition of Levandowski’s lidar company. The resulting Uber subsidiary was called Otto and focused on building self-driving trucks.
Uber fired Levandowski in May 2017, three months after Waymo filed suit. Levandowski repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the legal proceedings surrounding the lawsuit. Uber, meanwhile, shuttered its self-driving truck project in the summer of 2018.
Uber is not charged in the case. An Uber spokesperson said the company has “cooperated with the government throughout their investigation and will continue to do so.”
In a statement, a Waymo spokesperson says the company has “always believed competition should be fueled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case.”
Levandowski did not respond to a request for comment. His lawyers, the white-collar defense firm Ramsey & Ehrlich, released a statement calling the engineer “innocent.” “This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago,” they wrote. “None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company.”
During the abridged Waymo trial, Uber lawyers argued that, first, Waymo had not done enough to protect its information to qualify it as a “trade secret” and that, second, the information wasn’t important enough to be a “trade secret” anyway. Uber’s legal team presented an email from Google hardware engineer Sasha Zbrozek describing what Levandowski had downloaded as so “low-value” that “we had even considered hosting it off Google infrastructure.” While on the stand, the engineer backtracked, claiming that he meant only that Google’s culture treated hardware as less important than software. Zbrozek also testified that Waymo did not have a system in place to detect a large-scale download of internal secrets.
In advance of the Waymo civil trial, US District Judge William Alsup referred the case to the Department of Justice for possible criminal charges. Such a referral is very rare, and it undoubtedly put pressure on government lawyers to dig into the incident, says Peter Toren, an intellectual property lawyer and former attorney with the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. With subpoena power, he says, it’s possible that federal prosecutors unearthed evidence that Waymo’s lawyers did not. “There’s nothing like a witness having to appear before a grand jury that sharpens their recollections,” he says.
After leaving Uber, Levandowski launched another automated-truck venture, this one called Pronto. On Tuesday, Levandowski stepped down from his position as CEO. “The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology,” the company said in a statement.
Update, 8-27-2019, 7pm ET: This story has been updated to include details of Levandowski’s arraignment.
Update, 8-27-2019, 4:20 pm ET: This story has been updated.
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