Ex-Waymo Engineer Charged in Theft of Driverless Car Secrets

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A federal grand jury in California has indicted the former head of Uber’s self-driving vehicle initiative on charges of stealing Google technology and siphoning it to the ride-hail giant, prosecutors said Tuesday.

The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

In the months before departing his engineering job at Google-owned Waymo, Anthony Levandowski downloaded nearly 14,000 manufacturing files related to Waymo’s self-driving car technology called Light Detecting and Ranging, or LiDAR, according to the 33-count indictment.

The files Levandowski downloaded from Google servers included circuit board maps, instructions for testing LiDAR, and engineering files, according to the indictment returned by the grand jury Aug. 15 and unsealed Tuesday.

Levandowski, 39, of Marin County, was a founding member of Google’s autonomous vehicle project, later called Waymo, and worked to develop driverless technology from 2009 until he resigned without notice in January 2016.

Days after resigning, Levandowski started Ottomotto, an autonomous trucking company acquired by Uber in August 2016.

Waymo sued Uber in 2017 for nearly $2 billion, claiming Uber used Waymo’s hardware and software technology for its self-driving car initiative.

The company claimed Levandowski and Uber’s executives colluded to build and later purchase Ottomotto in order to swipe trade secrets from Waymo after Uber’s self-driving car project stalled.

For its part, Uber argued Waymo trade secrets never made it onto their company servers or autonomous vehicles. The companies reached a midtrial settlement in February 2018.

U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement Tuesday the trade secrets prosecutors believe were stolen by Levandowski belonged to Google.

“All of us have the right to change jobs,” said Anderson. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”

Anderson said Levandowski has surrendered to law enforcement.

FBI Special Agent John F. Bennett told reporters Tuesday that Silicon Valley’s innovation-driven mantra is not an invitation for tech engineers to flout federal laws.

“The Bay Area has some of the best and brightest engineers and designers, and they take big risks and invest a lot of money and disrupt the market over and over again,” Bennett told reporters. “But Silicon Valley is not the Wild West. The fast-paced and competitive environment doesn’t mean federal laws don’t apply or can be ignored.”

A Waymo spokesperson echoed the investigator.

“We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Uber said it has cooperated with the government throughout the investigation “and will continue to do so.”

If convicted on all charges, Levandowski faces a 10-year maximum sentence, a fine of $250,000 and restitution for each violation, prosecutors said in the statement.

Levandowski is set to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins.

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