Anthony Levandowski, the once-lauded engineer who cofounded Google’s self-driving car project and helped spark interest in autonomous vehicles, pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing a confidential Google document shortly before leaving the company. In the agreement, Levandowski agreed to a maximum fine of $250,000 and a maximum prison term of 10 years, though prosecutors expect to recommend a sentence of 24 to 30 months.
The charges stemmed from the months before Levandowski left Google in January 2016 to found a self-driving truck startup called Otto, which Uber quickly acquired for a reported $680 million. In February 2017, Waymo—as Google’s AV effort is now known—sued Uber, alleging that it had bought Otto to get access to a trove of confidential documents Levandowski downloaded before striking out on his own. In a February 2018 settlement, Uber paid Waymo about $245 million, but not before the judge trying the case recommended that the prosecutors consider a criminal case against Levandowski. In August 2019, Levandowski was indicted on 33 charges of trade secret theft and attempted trade secret theft.
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The trial was set for January 2021, and Levandowski had contended he was innocent. “I was excited about fighting and winning,” he said Thursday evening. Ultimately, he concluded the case wasn’t worth fighting: “I’m happy to put this behind me.”
The engineer has other troubles. Earlier this month he filed for bankruptcy after an arbitration panel ruled he owed Google $179 million, related to his departure from the company. (In a September 2019 hearing, a lawyer for Levandowski said the engineer had $72 million.)
Although Waymo v. Uber focused largely on lidar, the laser scanning technology crucial to autonomy, the count to which Levandowski pleaded guilty involved a weekly update on Google’s self-driving project. The document included details on quarterly goals and weekly metrics, summaries of technical challenges, and notes on how the team had overcome past hurdles. In the plea, Levandowski admitted the document qualified as a trade secret, and that he intended to use it to benefit himself and Uber. By pleading guilty, Levandowski waived his right to a trial and to appeal his conviction. He also admitted to downloading some 14,000 files from a Google server and transferring them to his personal laptop, along with a variety of other files.
Levandowski, who turned 40 earlier this week, has been a key player in the self-driving world since his early 20s, when he entered the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge with an autonomous motorcycle. He helped found Google’s effort in 2009, but was a divisive force on the team. Some found him a brilliantly motivating, outside the box thinker, others a rule-breaking jerk. By 2015 he had been sidelined, having lost a power struggle to his teammate Chris Urmson. Levandowski was left to lead the program’s lidar effort.
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Frustrated with his position and Google’s failure to launch a self-driving product after seven years of work, Levandowski was glad to go to Uber, whose then-CEO Travis Kalanick viewed autonomy as a must-have technology for its ride-hail network. After Kalanick acquired Otto, he put Levandowski in charge of the company’s self-driving program. But when Waymo filed its lawsuit and Levandowski invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, Kalanick fired him. In December 2018, Levandowski announced he had founded a new self-driving truck company called Pronto that would focus on computer vision and shun lidar, which he now deemed a “crutch.” When he was indicted on criminal charges, he left the company.
Levandowski says he’s somber about the idea of going to prison, and worries about his two young sons. Whatever his sentence, he expects to continue playing a role in the self-driving industry, though it’s hard to imagine him regaining the centrality he once had, given his tarnished reputation. Asked if he felt singled out by Google among the many engineers who left to start competing efforts, he paraphrases a quote he attributes to Winston Churchill: “You measure your success by the quality of your adversaries. Having Google be scared of you is a pretty big compliment.”
More than 15 years on from the first Grand Challenge, Levandowski says that the goal of a capable self-driving car is years off, and requires more than one technical breakthrough to realize. But true to character, he remains optimistic: “It’ll happen,” he says. “It’ll be a great thing when it does.”
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