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Central figure charged with theft in autonomous vehicle trade secrets case

Anthony Levandowski surrenders after 33-count federal indictment is unsealed

Anthony Levandowski, central figure in a trade secrets dispute between Google and Uber, was charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft on Tuesday, August 27.

Anthony Levandowski, an engineer at the center of a trade secrets case between self-driving  technology competitors Google spinoff Waymo and Uber, was charged Tuesday in a federal indictment Tuesday with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft.

Levandowski is accused in the nine-page indictment of stealing 14,000 documents from Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), most focused on LiDAR sensor technology. The indictment alleges he transferred the files to his personal laptop, which violated his contract with Google.  

If convicted, Levandowski could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine for each count and additional restitution.

LiDAR works by sending out an array of high-power, pulsing lasers into the surrounding environment. The laser beams bounce off surrounding objects and return to the sensor, which measures the qualities of the retum signals to determine the size, shape and distance of surrounding objects.

Levandowski surrenders

Levandowski, who surrendered to authorities in San Jose, California, became known for self-driving technology as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. He designed a self-driving motorcycle that was entered in the Pentagon’s first contest for autonomous vehicles. 

He was a star engineer at Google when he left suddenly in January 2016 and formed his own company called Ottomotto. In August 2016, Uber (NYSE: UBER) purchased Levandowski’s self-driving trucking startup, later renamed Otto Trucking, and Levandowski joined Uber. 

Anthony Levandowski talks Autonomous vehicles at Transparency19

Google vs. Uber

In February 2017 Google accused Uber and Levandowski of stealing self-driving car technology. That case went to trial in San Francisco in February 2018 but was settled four days into the trial.    Uber agreed to provide 0.34 percent of its stock to Alphabet, the parent company of Waymo and Google.

Levandowski’s situation was not addressed in the settlement. But the federal judge in the case referred it to the U.S. Attorney’s office for a possible criminal inquiry, resulting in an August 15 indictment that was unsealed Tuesday, August 27.

After the Google settlement with Uber, Levandowski left Uber. He formed Pronto.AI, another self-driving startup focused on commercial trucking. It offers fully adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and proactive lane centering. Daimler Trucks North America offers the technologies of its own design on its 2020 Freightliner Cascadia.

Pronto.AI reaction

Pronto said that based on Tuesday’s events, Chief Safety Officer Robbie Miller would take over as CEO.

“Under [Miller’s] leadership, we will continue to deliver on our mission of bringing a new layer of safety to commercial trucking,” the company said in a statement. “The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to LiDAR and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology.”

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.