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Ex-Uber self-driving car whiz charged with stealing trade secrets from Google

Former Uber And Google Engineer Anthony Levandowski
Former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski was fined $179 million over theft from his former employer Google of autonomous driving technology. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Update: Levandowski was fined $179 million in the case — and promptly declared bankruptcy.  

Uber ended its lengthy, highly publicized legal battle with Google’s Waymo division over stolen trade secrets in 2018 by settling out of court for $245 million, but the saga continues. Anthony Levandowski, the star engineer accused of leaving Google’s self-driving car division in January 2016 with some of its lidar-related intellectual property, has been indicted on 33 criminal counts.

The 39-year-old Levandowski “knowingly stole, and without authorization appropriated, took, carried away, concealed, and by fraud, artifice, and deception obtained trade secrets belonging to Google,” according to a nine-page indictment published by the United States Department of Justice.

The government accused him of downloading about 14,000 files detailing dozens of trade secrets from Google’s servers and using them to create a company called Otto, which aimed to develop self-driving technology for semi trucks, in May 2016. Uber purchased the startup in August 2016 for $680 million. Levandowski became the head of the ride-hailing firm’s controversial self-driving car project after the acquisition.

His lawyers told Reuters he’s innocent; they stated he was authorized to download files from Google’s servers while he worked for the company, and none of them ended up in the hands of Uber. Levandowski pleaded not guilty to the charges in a federal court in San Jose, California. He posted bail, turned in his American and French passports, and agreed to wear an ankle bracelet that tracks his location.

The charges brought against Levandowski are serious. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each criminal count, meaning he could walk out of the courtroom with a 330-year prison sentence and an $8,250,000 fine, though such a long, expensive penalty is extremely unlikely. U.S. Attorney David Anderson declined to comment on whether Uber, which allegedly benefited from the stolen technology, will face criminal charges as well. The company is cooperating with the government, a spokesperson told Reuters.

The legal battle has already cost Levandowski another job. Uber fired him in May 2017, three months into its lawsuit against Waymo. In 2018, he co-founded a software company named Pronto that focuses on developing self-driving technology for commercial trucks. The firm told Digital Trends via email that Robbie Miller, its chief safety officer, has replaced Levandowski as chief executive officer. “We are fully supportive of Anthony and his family during this period,” Pronto added.

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