A former Google engineer has been charged with stealing self-driving car technology from the company shortly before joining Uber.
The ride-hailing app firm had agreed to pay Google offshoot Waymo $245m (£199.4m) to settle the case last year, but the indictment came after a federal judge made an unusual recommendation to open a criminal investigation after seeing enough evidence to conclude a theft may have occurred.
Anthony Levandowski, a pioneer in robotic vehicles, was charged with 33 counts of trade secrets theft by the attorney’s office in San Jose, California, with each carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 (£203,451) fine, or an $8.25m (£6.71 million) fine if convicted of all counts.
Waymo alleged Levandowski, 39, downloaded 14,000 documents containing its trade secrets before he left to focus on his self-driving truck company Otto, which was bought by Uber in 2016 for $680m (£553.4m).
Uber denied having any knowledge of the documents, but eventually fired Levandowski after he repeatedly asserted his constitutional right against self-incrimination leading up to the trial.
Lawyers for Levandowski – who turned himself in and was later released on a $2m (£1.6m) bond – maintained his innocence in a statement read outside court, saying he downloaded the documents as an authorised Google employee and never brought those files to Uber or any other company.
Among the top-secret information he is accused of stealing are breakthroughs in lidar, a key piece of technology that enables self-driving cars to detect what is around them.
It would be vital to Uber delivering upon its ambition to have self-driving cars in its fleet, meaning it would no longer have to hire drivers at significant expense to the company.
Prosecutors say Uber and Google have both cooperated with the investigation so far, but have refused to say if Uber and its founding chief executive Travis Kalanick could be dragged into the probe.
During the Waymo trial, Mr Kalanick conceded Uber needed to develop self-driving cars to survive – but he denied he ever resorted to stealing technology from Google.
He said he believed Google was an ally until he began to suspect the company intended to launch its own ride-hailing service consisting entirely of its robotic vehicles, and that his own push to build self-driving cars for Uber is what led him to wooing Levandowski, who was also the subject of a separate case during arbitration proceedings.
Google pursued the case, which saw a panel order Levandowski to pay the company $127m (£103.4m) – a fee Uber may be held liable for due to guarantees made in its purchase of Otto.
In the meantime, Levandowski has been ordered to wear an ankle bracelet with GPS tracking, and he has surrendered his US and French passports to the FBI and been temporarily banned from airports.
He has also stepped down as chief executive of another self-driving start-up called Pronto, which he launched after his departure from Uber.
While Uber has not been charged as part of the investigation, it has been a further stain on the reputation of a company that considers having self-driving technology crucial to survive and counter potential competitive threats.
During the probe, Richard Jacobs, a former Uber security specialist, has claimed the company employed an espionage team to spy on Waymo and other rivals while creating ways to conceal any stolen technology.
Uber has been battling to improve perceptions of its business since jettisoning Mr Kalanick two years ago, but has also faced questions over sexual harassment at the company, its use of software designed to dupe regulators, and covering up a hacking attack that stole the details of 57 million passengers and 600,000 drivers.
Stock in Uber fell by 1% after the indictments against Levandowski were announced, with the FBI agent in charge of the investigation saying: “Silicon Valley is not the Wild West.”
Source: SKY NEWS