Autonomous-truck-technology pioneer Anthony Levandowski’s legal troubles just increased dramatically. On Aug. 27, the Department of Justice announced it was charging him with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets dating back to Levandowski’s time at Google, when he was an engineer working on that company’s Waymo autonomous vehicle project.
DOJ alleges that Levandowski stole confidential trade and technical secrets from Google and took them with him when his start-up autonomous truck company Otto, was acquired by Uber late 2016.
Levandowski’s legal woes first began in 2017, when a lawsuit was filed against the company by Google, alleging that he had obtained autonomous technology trade secrets before resigning to found Otto and then used that data in research and development efforts at his new company.
According to various news outlets, including CNBC, the indictment alleges that Levandowski downloaded thousands of files from Waymo’s predecessor, Project Chauffeur, before leaving Google to found Otto. The files allegedly included “critical engineering information about the hardware used on Project Chauffeur self-driving vehicles,” and that Levandowski transferred files onto his personal laptop.
Levandowski surrendered himself at the San Jose federal courthouse on Aug. 27, U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson said. Both Uber and Google cooperated with government officials, he said, while acknowledging that the investigation is ongoing.
Waymo claimed in its 2017 lawsuit against Levandowski that drawings of 3-D lidar sensors designed for Uber’s self-driving car project revealed a “striking resemblance” to Waymo’s own designs. According to CNBC, the suit also alleged that Levandowski took “extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities,” after downloading over 14,000 confidential and proprietary files before resigning.
In 2018, Uber settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay Waymo a 0.34% equity stake amounting to about $245 million based on Uber’s valuation at the time.
Following the DOJ’s announcement, Levandowski’s lawyers, Miles Ehrlich and Ismail Ramsey, issued a statement referencing the Waymo settlement and said the new charges, “rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago. The downloads at issue occurred while Anthony was still working at Google — when he and his team were authorized to use the information. None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or any other company.”
Levandowski’s new autonomous truck start-up, Pronto AI, promptly announced a new chief executive as news of the indictments spread, with Chief Safety Officer Robbie Miller taking as CEO.
“The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to Lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology,” Pronto said in a statement. “Of course, we are fully supportive of Anthony and his family during this period.”
In another statement, Waymo said, “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.”
Uber, in turn, issued a statement noting its previous cooperation with the DOJ during the investigation and said it would continue to do so as the case unfolded.