Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski was charged Tuesday with stealing self-driving car technology from the company shortly before joining Uber’s efforts to catch up in the high-stakes race to build robotic vehicles.
The indictmentfiled Tuesday by the U.S. attorney’s office in San Jose is an offshoot of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by Waymo, a self-driving car pioneer that spun off from Google and is still owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet. Uber agreed last year to pay Waymo $245 million to settle the case, but the presiding judge made an unusual recommendation to open a criminal investigation, having seen enough evidence to conclude a theft may have occurred.
Uber has considered self-driving technology crucial for its survival and for countering potential competitive threats from Waymo and dozens of other companies working on robotic vehicles. Uber wants to build self-driving cars so it can eliminate the need to have a human behind the wheel, one of the biggest expenses in its still-unprofitable ride-hailing service.
Levandowski, a pioneer in robotic vehicles, was charged with 33 counts of trade secrets theft. Each count carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or $8.25 million if convicted of all counts.