Anthony Levandowski, a former Google engineer who led the tech giant’s self-driving project Waymo before its spinoff in 2016, was charged with a set of trade secret theft crimes that were believed to have helped him land a multimillion-dollar job at Uber shortly after leaving Google.
According to a criminal suit filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern California on Tuesday, Levandowski, 40, was indicted with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets, which involved about 14,000 files relating to Waymo’s self-driving car technology, between late 2015 and early 2016.
The stolen files included circuit board drawings and design details of Waymo’s Lidar (the navigation system installed on top of an autonomous car), that took “years of research and testing, and millions of dollars in investment,” per court documents.
Prosecutors allege that, before resigning from Google in January 2016, Levandowski downloaded the files in question onto his personal laptop. He then used those trade secrets to create a self-driving truck company called Otto. Six months later, his startup was acquired by Uber for roughly $680 million. As part of the acquisition, Uber hired Levandowski as head of its own self-driving unit.
“All of us have the right to change jobs, none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. “Theft is not innovation.”
If convicted, Levandowski could face up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $8.25 million, based on $250,000 for each of the 33 counts of trade secret theft.
Levandowski’s defense lawyers argued that he didn’t steal the files because he downloaded them while employed at Google. The defense team added that the criminal charges were simply rehashing claims that were already discredited in an earlier civil case.
In February 2018, Waymo sued Uber for illegally transferring self-driving technology with the Otto acquisition. The case settled within a week, with Uber agreeing to pay Waymo $245 million in damages and not to use its technology in the future.
However, Levandowski, a key person in the dispute, refused to cooperate with Uber’s defense team during the civil trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, which prompted the judge to recommend further criminal investigation.
Levandowski joined Google in 2007 as a software engineer. He stayed with the tech giant for nine years before resigning in 2016.