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Ex-Google engineer pleads not guilty to stealing self-driving car secrets

Reuters

Published
Modified 28 Aug 2019, 2:45 am

Anthony Levandowski, a pioneer in self-driving car technology, was criminally charged on Tuesday with stealing trade secrets from his former employer Google before joining rival Uber Technologies Inc.

The 33-count indictment made public by the US Department of Justice largely mirrors allegations that the Waymo unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc, where Levandowski had worked, made in a 2017 civil lawsuit against Uber, which later settled.

His lawyers said Levandowski stole nothing, and that they looked forward to proving his innocence at trial.

Levandowski, 39, pleaded not guilty to the charges through one of his lawyers, at an arraignment before US Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins in San Jose, California.

The judge set a preliminary bail package of US$300,000 (RM1.26 million) cash and the pledging as collateral of two properties worth US$2 million (RM8.41 million). 

Another hearing to set final bail terms was scheduled for Sept 4, as government lawyers said they needed more time to assess Levandowski’s finances.

Levandowski surrendered his US and French passports and will wear an ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts. A prosecutor expressed concern at the arraignment that Levandowski might be a flight risk.

The defendant could face up to 10 years in prison on each count if convicted.

Levandowski’s prosecution is one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile trade secret theft cases, as engineers race to develop technology for self-driving vehicles, which industry experts view as a US$1 trillion (RM4.21 trillion) market opportunity within three decades.

Prosecutors accused Levandowski of stealing materials in late 2015 and early 2016 related to Waymo’s self-driving car technology.

They said he did this after deciding to leave and form his own self-driving company, Ottomotto, which Uber later bought.

The alleged stolen materials included details related to Lidar, a crucial sensor technology, according to the indictment.

All people are free to change jobs, US Attorney David Anderson said at a news conference. “But what we cannot do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door.”

Anderson declined to answer a reporter’s question on whether Uber could also face any criminal charges. 

An Uber spokesperson said the company had cooperated with the government throughout its investigation and would continue to do so.

Levandowski left Waymo in early 2016 and eventually took over Uber’s self-driving car project before being fired.

“For more than a decade, Levandowski has been an industry-leading innovator in self-driving technologies,” and the government’s case is a “rehash” of discredited claims, his lawyer Miles Ehrlich told reporters at the courthouse.

Lawyers for Levandowski said the downloads in question occurred while their client was still working at Waymo, and that he was authorised to use the information.

Pronto, a self-driving software company that Levandowski co-founded in 2018, said in a statement it replaced him as chief executive with Robbie Miller, who had been chief safety officer. It also said it was “fully supportive” of Levandowski and his family.

Legal battles involving Levandowski have cost Uber precious time on its self-driving car project, seen as important to its long-term profitability.

Levandowski did not testify at the trial between Waymo and Uber before they settled, and has not spoken publicly about it.

The lawsuit was another public controversy for Uber, which was trying to emerge from scandals under former chief executive Travis Kalanick, including over how it treated female employees.

Kalanick had called self-driving cars an “existential” threat for the ride-hailing company.

Prosecutors said there remain legal limits to competition.

“Silicon Valley is not the Wild West,” FBI special agent in charge John Bennett said at a news conference. “The fast-paced and competitive environment does not mean federal laws don’t apply or they can be ignored.”

Waymo said it appreciated prosecutors’ work on the case. “We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Alphabet shares closed down 36 cents at US$1,170.82, while Uber fell 20 cents to US$33.11.

- Reuters

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