SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski was indicted on 33 counts Tuesday, charged with stealing self-driving car technology from the company shortly before he joined Uber’s efforts to catch up in the high-stakes race to build self-driving vehicles.
The indictment filed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s office is an offshoot of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by Waymo, a self-driving car pioneer spun off from Google.READ MORE: Girl Fights Off Man Who Touched, Punched, Spit At Her In Milpitas Park
DOWNLOAD: Levandowski full indictment (pdf.)
“All of us have the right to change jobs,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
Levandowski, who was the lead of Google’s Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) engineering team at the time of his sudden resignation in January 2016, was charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft in the indictment and will be arraigned on the charges Tuesday afternoon.
The indictment alleges that Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 documents from Google’s self-driving-car program and ultimately transferred the information to his personal computer before leaving the company to work for Uber.
John F. Bennett, Special Agent In Charge, San Francisco, said his office has been investigating claims against Levandowski since May 2017.
“The Bay Area has the best and brightest engineers and designers and they take big risks and they invest a lot of money and they disrupt the market over and over again,” Bennett told reporters. “But Silicon Valley is not the Wild West.”
If convicted, Levandowski could be sentenced up to 10 years and fined $250,000 per count — $8.25 million altogether.
Levandowski’s attorney, Miles Ehrlich, told reporters his client never gave files to Uber.
“We will have an answer to each and every one of these allegations,” he said outside the courthouse. “For more than a decade, Anthony Levandowski has been an industry leading innovator in the field of self-driving car and truck technology. The evidence in this case is going to show, conclusively, that Anthony did not steal anything. Not for Google, not from anyone. Period.”
Prosecutors said the files Levandowski allegedly downloaded included circuit board schematics, instructions for installing and testing LiDAR, and an internal tracking document.
Uber agreed to pay Waymo $245 million to settle the case, but the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit made an unusual recommendation to open a criminal probe.
Although Tuesday’s indictment didn’t charge Uber, it’s a stain for a company that has been trying to recover from a series of scandals since jettisoning CEO and founder CEO Travis Kalanick two years ago.READ MORE: COVID: Youth Nights At Levi's Stadium Add A Dose Of Fun To Teens' Vaccines
Federal officials told reporters the probe in on-going and other charges may be pending.
Besides trying to reverse perceptions that it’s a technological thief, Uber has been dealing with fallout from its own acknowledgement of rampant sexual harassment , its use of software designed to dupe regulators and a yearlong cover-up of a hacking attack that stole the personal information of 57 million passengers and 600,000 drivers.
The case seems unlikely to endear Uber with investors already skeptical about the company’s ability to make money after piling up billions of dollars of losses. The lack of profits is the main reason the company’s stock has fallen about 25% below the price set during its much-ballyhooed initial public offering of stock in May.
Levandowski was accused of stealing years of top-secret information from Google, which prosecutors called the crown jewels of the company. That included Google’s breakthroughs in LiDAR, a key piece of technology that enables self-driving cars to detect what’s around them.
During the Waymo trial, Kalanick conceded that Uber needed to develop self-driving cars to survive. But he denied that he ever resorted to stealing technology from Google, whom he believed was an ally until he began to suspect the company intended to launch its own ride-hailing service consisting entirely of its robotic vehicles.
But Kalanick also testified that his push to build a fleet of self-driving cars for Uber led him to woo Levandowski, who at the time was considered to be a pioneer in robotic vehicles. The two men began talking in 2015 before Levandowski left Google. After he left, Uber paid $680 million in 2016 to acquire Otto, a self-driving truck startup founded by Levandowski and another former Google employee, Lior Ron.
CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo says the criminal case is likely to reverberate throughout Silicon Valley where the competition for top talent can be cutthroat.
“Will it stop people from moving around? Probably not. Your area of expertise is your area of expertise. But what this case really highlights is just how competitive the marketplace is,” Guglielmo said. “Self-driving tech is really a big part of the bet of Silicon Valley in the future.”
Waymo, which spun off from Google in 2016, alleged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents containing its trade secrets before he left the company to found Otto. Uber denied knowing anything about those documents, but eventually fired him after he repeatedly asserted his constitutional right against self-incrimination leading up to the trial.
The whiff of potential wrongdoing became even more pungent following the disclosure of allegations by a former Uber security specialist, Richard Jacobs, that the company employed an espionage team to spy on Waymo and other rivals while creating ways to conceal any stolen technology.
Google also pursued a separate case against Levandowski in arbitration proceedings, which resulted in a panel ordering Levandowski to pay the company $127 million, according to disclosure made by Uber leading up to its IPO. Uber may be held liable for paying all or part of that as part of guarantees it made in its Otto acquisition, but believes it may be able to get out of those obligations.
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