Former Uber head of autonomous vehicles Anthony Levandowski has been charged with theft of trade secrets and criminal forfeiture for allegedly stealing thousands of files related to Google’s self-driving car division Waymo.
U.S. Attorney David Anderson announced Tuesday that Levandowski had surrendered himself and would appear in court that afternoon for his arraignment. If convicted, Levandowski faces 10 years in prison for each of the 33 counts of trade secret theft and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each count. The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged he downloaded more than 14,000 files “including critical engineering information, schematics, and other drawings” owned by Waymo to his personal laptop in December 2015 before starting at Uber in January 2016.
The FBI began investigating this case in May 2017, according to FBI Special Agent John F. Bennett. He described the situation as “a very tasty theft” during a press conference in San Jose, noting that the allegations include the theft of “all the underlying research, planning, and technology” from Google's autonomous driving work.
“Silicon Valley is not the Wild West. The fast pace and competitive environment does not mean that federal laws don't apply or that they can be ignored,” Bennett said of the charges.
The legal battle between Google’s self-driving car division Waymo and Uber captured Silicon Valley's attention in early 2018, with the two companies reaching a surprise settlement after four days of testimony. Uber agreed to pay Waymo $245 million.
Levandowski left Google after eight years with the company in late 2015 and quickly formed his own self-driving car startup, known as Otto. He joined Uber as a vice president of engineering in late 2016 when the company bought his nascent company for nearly $700 million, bringing Levandowski and his industry experience—and allegedly his knowledge of Waymo—under its wing.
In light of the charges, Levandowski is out as CEO at Pronto, an independent trucking company he co-founded after being fired from Uber in 2017. Pronto’s Chief Safety Officer Robbie Miller will step into the role.
“The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to Lidar [light detection and ranging] and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology,” a Pronto spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Levandowski's lawyers argue that he was authorized to download the files in question during his time at Google and that the “supposedly secret files” were not transferred to Uber when the former Google engineer sold Otto to the ride-sharing giant.
"We are all free to move from job to job,” Anderson said during Tuesday's press conference. “What we can't do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door."