Anthony Levandowski, the former Google autonomous vehicle engineer whose switch to Uber was the subject of massive lawsuit, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for trade theft.
Levandowski co-founded Google’s autonomous vehicle unit, now known as Waymo, in 2009 and worked there until 2016. That year, he quit and founded his own company, Otto, which itself was promptly acquired by Uber. It later turned out that before leaving Google, Levandowski downloaded gigabytes of proprietary data. Waymo sued Uber for trade theft and patent infringement, claiming Uber’s LiDAR tech relied on elements designed by Waymo. That set off a complicated series of legal battles which ended in a settlement in February 2018.
There were no clear victors. Google’s parent company Alphabet walked away with $245 million in Uber equity, a relative pittance, and dropped all remaining trade theft claims. Uber and Levandowski maintained the whole time that Waymo trade secrets were never uploaded to Uber servers or used in development. Uber’s self-driving cars are still in development, although its effort is reportedly lagging behind Waymo and competitor Lyft.
Levandowski’s troubles, however, did not end there. In August 2019, the Department of Justice charged him on 33 counts of theft of trade secrets and attempted theft of trade secrets for absconding from Google with 14,000 files. Those charges carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and up to $8.25 million in fines, plus restitution. Levandowski took a plea deal in March 2020 that saw all but one of the charges dropped, as well as agreed to fork over $750,000 in restitution to Waymo. But the same month, Levandowski declared bankruptcy after courts upheld an arbitration ruling that he owed Google an additional $179 million for breach of contract, including by poaching Google engineers.
Per Reuters, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said during sentencing on Tuesday that not sending Levandowski to prison would give a “green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets.” The 18-month sentence is, however, less than the 27 months sought by prosecutors, and Levandowski won’t be required to enter custody until after the novel coronavirus pandemic subsides. (According to Reuters, Levandowski’s attorneys argued a history of pneumonia meant he would be particularly vulnerable to the virus, which is spreading like wildfire in the nation’s prisons.) The pandemic isn’t likely to end anytime soon, meaning that sentence could be delayed for some time.
According to TechCrunch, Levandowski filed a separate lawsuit in July claiming that the undisclosed terms of the Waymo-Uber settlement included permanent blacklisting from working with Uber, as well as that Uber “coerced” him into selling his stake of Otto at a “significant discount.”
Levandowski is asking for “at least $4.128 billion” in payouts from Uber Freight, Uber’s business unit created out of Otto, which is roughly equivalent to the valuation of the entire unit, TechCrunch reported. He’s also asking Uber to pay the $179 million he owes Google. The lawsuit against Uber also claims the company illicitly acquired Waymo software from “a different former Google employee,” supposedly freeing him from some of the terms of the lawsuit.
“The last three and a half years have forced me to come to terms with what I did,” Levandowski told the Verge in a statement. “I want to take this time to apologize to my colleagues at Google for betraying their trust, and to my entire family for the price they have paid and will continue to pay for my actions.”
Update: 5/6/2020: In a statement to Gizmodo, a Waymo spokesperson cited Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Wawrzyniak as saying that the theft erased the “blood, sweat and tears” their teams had put into building self-driving cars.
“Anthony Levandowski’s theft of autonomous technology trade secrets has been enormously disruptive and harmful to Waymo, constituted a betrayal, and the effects would likely have been even more severe had it gone undetected,” the spokesperson wrote. “... Judge Alsup’s decision today to sentence Levandowski to 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets from us represents a win for trade secret laws that promote cutting-edge technology development.”