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Former Google self-driving car engineer charged with stealing trade secrets

Anthony Levandowski was once one of Google's top self-driving car engineers and was later fired from Uber. If convicted, he could face years in prison.
An Otto driverless truck at a garage in San Francisco on May 12, 2016. Eric Risberg / AP

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A former Google self-driving car engineer was charged Tuesday with 33 counts of stealing or trying to steal the company's trade secrets related to the technology, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

The initial accusation that Anthony Levandowski stole secret materials from Google in 2015 rocked Silicon Valley and led to a blockbuster civil trial last year.

Levandowski, who is expected to appear in San Jose federal court Tuesday, could face years in prison if convicted. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

“All of us, generally speaking, are free to move from job to job, but what we cannot do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a press conference in San Jose.

Levandowski, 39, was allowed to self-surrender, which he did at the San Jose federal courthouse. Anderson would not comment on the Justice Department probe of Uber.

Miles Ehrlich and Ismail Ramsey, lawyers for Levandowski, said they will fight the charges.

"This cash rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago," the lawyers said in a written statement handed out at the courthouse. "The downloads at issue occurred while Anthony was still working at Google — when he and his team were authorized to use the information."

In 2017, Waymo — Google's self-driving car operation — sued Uber, and while Levandowski never testified at the trial the following year, his absence loomed large over it.

The fight began in February 2017, when Waymo publicly alleged that former star engineer Levandowski “downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems,” including a crucial laser-based system known as LiDAR.

In federal charges unsealed Tuesday, the government claims that in December 2015, Levandowski took nearly 10 gigabytes of secret data from his employer.

“Silicon Valley is not the Wild West," said John Bennett, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco bureau, at the same press conference. "The fast-paced and competitive environment does not mean that federal laws can be ignored."

Levandowski abruptly left Google early in 2016, founding the company Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber for $680 million — an astonishing amount for a company that was only several months old.

In 2017, during hearings in the run-up to the civil trial, Levandowski fought hard to keep silent. He repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, protecting himself against self-incrimination and was threatened with being fired rather than comply with court orders.

According to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's July 2017 deposition, Levandowski downloaded the files as an "insurance policy" to protect a $120 million bonus from Google. But Kalanick was blunt with his analysis of his then-employee’s behavior: "That's pretty f---ing dumb."

After four days of trial in February 2018, the lawsuit ended in a surprise settlement.

Anderson said Uber and Google's Waymo were both supportive of the investigation and provided materials to the government

Since being fired from Uber in May 2017, Levandowski has gone on to found a related company called Pronto, which he announced in December 2018. Its top executives include veterans from Uber, Otto and Google.

Pronto announced on Tuesday that Robbie Miller, the company's chief safety officer, would be taking over as chief executive.