US prosecutors have charged Anthony Levandowski, one of the most prominent developers of self-driving car technology, on 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google, it was announced Tuesday.
Mr Levandowski, 39, was one of the founders of the Google self-driving project — now called Waymo — where he led the engineering team for lidar, a light-detection system similar to radar used for detecting objects.
The federal indictment alleges that Mr Levandowski downloaded from Google “numerous engineering, manufacturing, and business files” related to lidar and self-driving car technology, and then used them in his future ventures.
Mr Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016 to co-found Otto, an autonomous trucking company later acquired by Uber. Uber appointed him head of autonomy, but later fired him in May 2017 after allegations emerged that he had absconded Waymo with proprietary information.
“All of us have the right to change jobs,” said US attorney David L. Anderson. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
The US attorney’s office of the northern district of California said Mr Levandowski had been charged on August 15, but the documents were only unsealed on Monday. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
Waymo and Uber settled their trade secrets case last year, with Uber agreeing to pay Waymo $245m. Waymo originally demanded $1.85bn in damages. The deal did not affect the other legal cases relating to the issue.
A Waymo spokesperson said: “We have always believed competition should be fuelled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case.”
A spokesperson for Uber said: “We’ve co-operated with the government throughout their investigation and will continue to do so.”
Mr Levandowski is an entrepreneurial engineer known for pushing technological boundaries but upsetting colleagues in the process. Before Google was fully committed to its self-driving car project, he lit up the imagination of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when he outfitted a Toyota Prius with self-driving technology, then recorded it successfully delivering a pizza in San Francisco.
Last December Mr Levandowski unveiled a new venture, Pronto. AI, another self-driving truck start-up launched because of the industry’s “inability to deliver on its promises”, he said at the time.
He has often criticised the self-driving industry for being slow-moving. In a piece for Medium in December 2018, he wrote: “Despite the vast sums of money and time dedicated to developing and rolling out autonomous vehicles, there are no real autonomous vehicles today. There are only increasingly complex and expensive demonstrations.”
Pronto released a statement on Tuesday saying chief safety officer Robbie Miller will “take the reins” as chief executive.
“The criminal charges filed against Anthony 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,” it added.
Counsel for Mr Levandowski, Miles Ehrlich and Ismail Ramsey, dismissed the allegations as a “rehash” of claims “already discredited”.
They acknowledged he downloaded Google files but said he did so as an authorised employee. “He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” they wrote. “None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company.”