SAN JOSE, California – Anthony Levandowski, one of Silicon Valley's top self-driving technologists, was indicted Tuesday by federal prosecutors for 33 thefts and attempted theft of Google's trade secrets.
Criminal charges from the United States Attorney's Office in the Northern District of California open a new chapter in a legal battle that has embraced Google, its self-driving car spinoff Waymo and rival Uber in the high-stakes competition for autonomous vehicles. The case also highlights Silicon Valley's culture without barriers, where it can gain an advantage in new technologies versus competitors.
According to the complaint, Mr. Levandowski, who worked on self-driving cars at Google, downloaded more than 14,000 files containing critical information about Google's autonomous vehicle research before leaving the company in 2016. He then made an unauthorized transfer of the files to his personal laptop, the complaint states. Levandowski began in Uber later that year when the company that bought tours bought its new self-driving truck startup, which was called Otto.
Some of the files that Mr. Levandowski took from Google included private forms for proprietary circuit boards and light sensor technology designs, known as Lidar, and used in self-driving cars, according to the complaint.
"The Bay Area has the best and brightest engineers, and they take huge risks," said John Bennett, FBI Special Agent in charge of the San Francisco Division, at a news conference Tuesday. “But Silicon Valley is not the wild west. The fast-paced and competitive environment does not mean that federal laws do not apply. "
The United States Attorney's Office said Levandowski, 39, joined the federal courthouse in San Jose this morning. If convicted, Levandowski could face a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $ 250,000 fine for each count and additional restitution.
"All of us are free to go from job to job," said David L. Anderson, United States Attorney for the Northern District of California. "What we can't do is fill the pockets on the way out the door."
Mr. Levandowski's lawyers, Miles Erlich and Ismail Ramsey, said in a statement that he did not steal anything from anyone.
"This case rejects claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago," they said. "The actual downloads occurred while Anthony was still working at Google – when he and his team were authorized to use the information. None of these allegedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company."
Uber said in a statement that the company "has cooperated with the government throughout their investigation and will continue to do so."
Suzanne Philion, a spokeswoman for Waymo, said the company has always "believed that competition should be driven by innovation, and we appreciate the work to the US Attorney's Office and the FBI on this case. "
The charges follow a settlement between Waymo and Uber in a business secret case. In February 2017, Waymo had accused Mr. Levandowski of vehicle company and others of stealing self-driving car technology. This lawsuit went to trial in San Francisco in February 2018, bringing with it the tech industry with testimony of the inner workings of technology companies, rivalries among billionaire technology entrepreneurs and the cutthroat competition for engineering talent.
Four days after the trial, Uber Waymo settled, with Uber agreeing to give 0.34 percent of the stock to Alphabet, the parent company of Waymo and Google. But Mr Levandowski's situation was not resolved by the settlement. The federal judge in the case referred it to the United States Attorney's Office for a possible criminal investigation into Mr. Levandowski's behavior.
Mr. Levandowski was a pioneer in the field of autonomous vehicle research. He became known for his technology as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, when he designed a self-driving motorcycle that participated in Pentagon's first competition for autonomous vehicles.
At Google, which Mr. Levandowski joined for the last decade, he was a confidant of Larry Page, one of the company's co-founders. Levandowski ended up leading many aspects of the self-driving program in the company's secret "Google X" division. Google's self-driving car unit was later spun off to Waymo.
In 2016, Mr. Levandowski left Google to form Otto, a self-driving truck startup. He brought along a small army of Google engineers. Otto was quickly acquired by Uber for nearly $ 700 million. The deal was run by Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO at the time, who had a vision to build a fleet of self-driving robotics that would replace Uber's hundreds of thousands of human drivers.
In 2017, Waymo sued Uber, Mr. Levandowski and Otto for theft of trade secrets.
"Otto and Uber have taken Waymo's intellectual property so that they can avoid incurring the risk, time and expense regardless of developing their own technology," Waymo said in his suit. [19659002TherelationshipbetweenUberandMisterLevandowskickwithcorruptorAfterhavingonthecontinuedthatthefirstofthefinancialinvincenceofWaymo-caseBelevandowskisagtopavUberimai2017
"All Uber has to show Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit."
Mr. Levandowski, who earned millions of dollars for his work and through the sale of start-ups, has not withdrawn. In December, he interviewed The Guardian about his new self-driving startup, Pronto.AI, in which he claimed he built a car that had driven from San Francisco to New York without human interference.