A former engineer for Google’s Waymo self-driving car division has been indicted on more than 30 criminal counts alleging he stole or tried to steal trade secrets from his former employer.
Anthony Levandowski “knowingly stole, and without authorization appropriated” trade secrets belonging to Google relating to lidar technology used for autonomous vehicles, the US Attorney for the Northern District of California said in an indictment (PDF) unsealed today.
Levandowski began working for Google in 2007 and, at the time of his sudden departure in 2016, was in charge of the company’s lidar engineering team. Following his resignation from the company, he launched a self-driving trucking startup called Otto, which he sold a few months later to Uber for $680 million.
The criminal indictment alleges that Levandowski was in talks with Uber about that acquisition by September 2015—four months before he left Google. Additionally, the indictment says, Levandowski was by 2015 trying to sell several companies, including Uber, on his other side business, Tyto Lidar. (Google did not know about Tyto Lidar while Levandowksi was working for the search engine.) Otto acquired Tyto in the late spring of 2016, shortly after Uber said it would acquire Otto.
During the last month before he quit Google, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files containing “critical engineering information about the hardware” used by Waymo’s self-driving vehicles from the company’s internal Google Drive. He then transferred the files from his work laptop to his personal machine before taking them with him to Otto and Uber, the indictment claims.
“All of us have the right to change jobs, [but] none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door,” US Attorney David L. Anderson said in a written statement. “Theft is not innovation.”
Levandowski’s attorneys said in a written statement that their client “has been an industry-leading innovator in self-driving technologies” for decades, adding, “He didn’t steal anything, from anyone.”
This sounds familiar…
While the criminal charges are new, this is not Levandowski’s first time in a courtroom facing allegations of stealing trade secrets. Google filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017, saying Levandowski took more than 14,000 “highly confidential and proprietary design files” with him when he left. Google also claimed Uber was using the information like a “cheat code.”
That lawsuit ended in early 2018 with a surprise settlement five days into the trial. Uber agreed to pay out 0.34% of its equity, or about $244 million, and promised to make sure that no hardware or software derived from Waymo. The division formerly known as Otto shut down in July 2018.
The federal judge overseeing Google’s suit against Uber referred the case for potential criminal investigation, and federal prosecutors confirmed in December 2017 that a criminal investigation was underway.
“We have 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,” a spokesperson for Waymo said about the indictment.
Uber fired Levandowski in May 2017, a few months after Google filed suit. Following his departure from Uber, Levandowski co-founded another autonomous driving startup, Pronto. As of today, however, all mention of Levandowski is gone from Pronto’s website.
“As a result of today’s events, Robbie Miller, Pronto’s Chief Safety Officer, will take the reins” as CEO, the company said in a statement. “The criminal charges filed against Anthony [Levandowski] relate exclusively to lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s groundbreaking technology. Of course, we are fully supportive of Anthony and his family during this period.”