Anthony Levandowski leaves court

Former Uber engineer charged with trade theft by US prosecutors

Image credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Anthony Levandowski, who joined Uber to work on autonomous vehicles after leading the development of similar technology for Google, has been charged with 33 counts of trade theft.

Levandowski has been at the centre of an acrimonious dispute between Waymo (Google’s sister company, focused on developing autonomous vehicles) and Uber since Waymo filed a civil lawsuit in 2017.

Uber and Waymo are among the companies competing to develop safe and reliable autonomous vehicles. Uber – which has struggled to demonstrate that it could make a profit following a disappointing IPO earlier this year – could reduce expenses in the future by replacing human drivers with autonomous driving systems.

During the case, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick testified that Uber’s push to develop autonomous vehicles motivated him to pursue Levandowski. Levandowski left Google – where he was a co-founder of its autonomous driving project – in 2016, and focused on his autonomous truck start-up, Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber. Waymo alleged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents in late 2015 and early 2016 containing valuable trade secrets before leaving. Since leaving Google, Levandowski has also established a religious group called ‘Way of the Future’, dedicated to an AI-based artificial ‘Godhead’ and founded another autonomous driving technology start-up called Pronto AI.

Uber agreed to pay Waymo a settlement of $245m (£200m) to settle the case.

In an unexpected turn of events, the federal judge overseeing the Uber-Waymo dispute has made the recommendation to open a criminal probe into Levandowski’s behaviour after being presented with enough evidence to conclude that he may have committed trade theft.

According to the US Department of Justice, Levandowski has been charged with 33 counts of trade theft, which prosecutors compared to the ‘crown jewels’ of Waymo; this information included key breakthroughs in lidar technology, which enables autonomous cars to detect their surroundings by measuring the amount of time it takes for beams of laser light to be reflected from objects. He faces a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and $250,000 (£200,000) fine, or a fine of $8.25m (£6.71m) if convicted of all counts. Another hearing will be help to finalise his bail terms, as more time is required to assess the state of Levandowski’s finances.

Levandowski pleaded not guilty before US Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins in San Jose, California. Miles Ehrlich, one of Levandowski’s representatives, characterised his client as an “industry-leading innovator in self-driving technologies” and an honest man, stating: “He didn’t steal anything from anyone. This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year [ago].” Ehrlick stated that Levandowski downloaded the 14,000 Waymo documents as a Google employee, and never brought them to Uber.

Levandowski turned himself in and was later released on a preliminary bail package of $300,000 ($250,000) in cash and $2m (£1.6m) in two properties. He has been characterised as a flight risk and banned from airports, as well as being forced to surrender his passports and wear a GPS ankle tag.

Prosecutors said that the criminal probe was ongoing, but did not disclose whether Uber itself or its former CEO Travis Kalanick were targets of the probe. They said that Uber and Google were cooperating with the investigation.

John Bennett, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent heading the investigation, characterised the investigation as a sign of the agency’s commitment to ensuring that vital technology is developed responsibly, commenting that: “Silicon Valley is not the Wild West.”

In addition to the accusations of trade theft made by Waymo, Uber has gained a reputation for ‘tech  bro’ irresponsibility following reports of widespread sexual harassment within the company, sexual abuse of passengers by drivers, a cover-up of a hacking attack which compromised the personal data of 57 million customers, anger from Uber drivers over their classification as ‘independent contractors’, and use of specially-created ‘Greyball’ software to evade law enforcement. Richard Jacobs, a former Uber employee, alleges that the company has a dedicated espionage team to spy on rivals and conceal trade theft.

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