Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for stealing trade secrets from Google when he left the company and headed over to Uber. Levandowski worked on Google’s self-driving car from 2009 until early 2016.
He was the lead of Google’s Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) engineering team so he had access to sensitive information regarding the development process. The 33-count indictment alleges he downloaded engineering, manufacturing, and business files related to Google’s LiDAR on his way out the door to Uber.
The technical files downloaded include circuit board schematics, instructions for installing and testing the LiDAR system, and an internal tracking document. The indictment also alleges Levandowski was working with two Google competitors, Tyto LiDAR and 280 Systems. The latter of the those two companies became Ottomotto, which eventually acquired Tyto after Uber acquired them and hired Levandwoski.
While leaving one company to go to another that’s a competitor isn’t uncommon, you can’t simply take your old company’s trade secrets along for the switch. “All of us have the right to change jobs,” said U.S. Attorney Anderson, “none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
If Levandowski is found guilty of these charged, there’s a significant price to pay. The maximum sentence is 10 years and a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for reach violation. That doesn’t mean he’ll get those maximum penalties, but it’s a possibility. No criminal charges have been filed against Uber.
Levandowski’s lawyers, of course, refute the claims and say he’s done nothing wrong. They say the downloads happened while he was still employed and that he had permission to use the information.
Autonomous driving technology is still in its early stages. While there’s semi-autonomous tech already on the road in today’s cars, fully autonomous vehicles are still reserved for the future.
The arrival of that future all depends on how quickly engineers can perfect the technology to a point that it is fully autonomous. It’s also dependent on how quickly the government approves these cars for the road.
Any edge, no matter how small, could be what puts one company on top. Whether Levandowski attempted to give that edge to Uber will come out as prosecutors continue to pursue their case.