Former Head of Google's Self-Driving Car Project Pleads Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets

Former Head of Google's Self-Driving Car Project Pleads Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets

Author: Eric Walz   

In one of the biggest cases involving the theft of intellectual property in Silicon Valley in recent memory, Anthony Levandowski, the former head engineer of Google's self-driving car project, has agreed to plead guilty for stealing trade secrets from the technology giant and using them to launch his own self-driving truck startup Ottomotto.

As part of the plea deal, Levandowski pleaded guilty to one count, which accused him of downloading files to his personal computer that tracked technical goals for Google's self-driving project. Federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a prison term of no more than 30 months. 

Levandowski also agreed to pay nearly $756,500 in restitution to cover Alphabet's costs for assisting in the government's investigation, according to court papers. He was facing 10 years in prison on each count if convicted. A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.

"I downloaded these files with the intent to use them for my own personal benefit, and I understand that I was not authorized to take the files for that purpose," Levandowski said in court filings on Thursday.

In August 2019, the U.S. The Justice Department charged Levandowski with 33 counts for the "theft or attempted theft of trade secrets." The charges were announced by United States Attorney David L. Anderson and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett.  

Levandowski is a well-known figure in Silicon Valley circles. He worked on Google's self-driving car project for over a decade, where he led Google's work on lidar technology for autonomous driving. 

The trade secrets surround Google's lidar technology, which is used by autonomous vehicles for navigation. Lidar detects surrounding objects by projecting pulses of laser beams, measuring the time it takes for the light to reflect back off nearby objects. 

The technology is key for Waymo, Uber and many other tech companies and automakers developing self-driving vehicles.

Levandowski abruptly resigned from Google, known as Alphabet Inc., without notice in January 2016 to launch Otto, taking several key Google employees with him in his new venture.

In August 2016, Uber purchased Otto for $680 million in order to jumpstart its own self-driving car efforts. After the acquisition of Otto, Uber hired Levandowski to lead its in-house self-driving car development for its future autonomous ride-hailing plans. Levandowski was accused of sharing the trade secrets with Uber.

According to Waymo, Uber paying the "remarkable sum" of $680 million for "a company with few assets and no marketable product" is proof it was buying misappropriated trade secrets.

In Feb, 2017 Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, over the theft, which included around 14,000 files, or approximately 9.6 GB worth of intellectual property from a secure Waymo server that contained engineering documents and schematics related to lidar development. 

In a statement released by Waymo after filing the suit in 2017, the company wrote "Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions."

That case was eventually settled a year later in February 2018. Under terms of the settlement, Uber agreed to give Waymo a 0.34 percent stake, worth approximately $245 million at the time. The settlement terms included no admission of guilt from Uber. 

The settlement was much less than Waymo was originally seeking. Waymo had initially sought damages of $1.9 billion.

Although Levandowski was not named as a defendant in Waymo's suit against Uber, he was accused of conspiring with former Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick to steal thousands of proprietary files related to the lidar technology. Uber itself denied any wrongdoing.

Levandowski filed for bankruptcy on March 4 to negotiate his debts. The bankruptcy declaration followed a California state court confirming that Levandowski owes $179 million to Google for violating his employment contracts.

"We hope that this plea will allow him to move on with his life and focus his energies where they matter most," developing new technologies, Levandowski's attorney, Miles Ehrlich, said in a statement.

In Dec 2017, an Uber investor filed a lawsuit against the ride-hailing company for failing to properly vet the company's $680 million acquisition of Otto.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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