Former Google Self-Driving Car Engineer Charged With Theft of Trade Secrets

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 03, 2019 6:00 AM

Last year, Google self-driving subsidiary Waymo and Uber settled a civil lawsuit claiming that the latter stole the former's autonomous vehicle software. The man at the center of that controversy, Andrew Levandowski, had left Google to found his own company, Otto, which was quickly scooped up by Uber.

While the settlement covered civil claims between the two companies, it didn't foreclose criminal punishment. And earlier this week, federal prosecutors charged Levandowski with 33 counts related to the theft of trade secrets, claiming he stole around 14,000 "engineering, manufacturing, and business files" from his former employer before resigning.

White Collars

"All of us have the right to change jobs," U.S. Attorney David Anderson told reporters following the indictment. "None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation." According to prosecutors, Levandowski (who has since been fired from Uber and removed as CEO from his latest self-driving enterprise, Pronto) was already forming competing entities almost three years before he left Google.

He was hired by Google in 2007, and was one of the founders of Project Chauffeur, the company's self-driving car project, in 2009. His indictment indicates he was already having discussions with Uber about acquiring his own self-driving company, Ottomotto, in the fall of 2015, months before his alleged theft. And he may have been conspiring his exit as far back as 2012.

In December 2015, Levandowski allegedly downloaded thousands of Google files containing "critical engineering information about the hardware used on Project Chauffeur self-driving vehicles, including schematics for the printed circuit boards used in various custom LiDAR products." (LiDAR stands for "Light Detection and Ranging," tech that is essential to self-driving cars.) He then transferred the docs from his Google laptop to his personal laptop. Levandowski abruptly resigned in January 2016, and Uber signed a term sheet to buy Levandowski's Ottomotto in February.

And Crime

The former "center" of the self-driving industry is charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1832, which concerns the theft of trade secrets. Each of the 33 counts of theft or alleged theft relates to distinct documents or secrets Levandowski allegedly pulled from Google servers prior to his departure, and he is potentially facing 10 years in prison and $5 million in fines for each violation. Levandowski is currently out on $2 million bail and wearing an ankle monitor. He's due back in court in San Jose, California, next week.

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