Anthony Levandowski, the self-driving car engineer and former Google executive who joined Uber via an acquisition of his autonomous truck company Otto, has agreed to plead guilty to stealing Google trade secrets, according to Reuters.
The decision is just the latest chapter in the multi-year legal saga involving Levandowski’s roles in both Google and Uber’s fast-growing self-driving car divisions. The lawsuit between Waymo, Alphabet’s now-standalone autonomous car unit, and Uber eventually resulted in a settlement between the two companies back in February of 2018. (Uber paid Waymo more than $244 million as a result.)
But Levandowski remained on the hook for criminal charges of trade secret theft brought by the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, charges that were brought primarily because Levandowski exercised his Fifth Amendment rights during the trial and refused to hand over any related documents. In August of last year, he was charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets for allegedly stealing roughly 14,000 documents from Google prior to founding and selling Otto to Uber.
As part of the plea deal, Levandowski is agreeing to one of the 33 charges in exchange for prosecutors dropping the other 32. He has also admitted he downloaded one Waymo spreadsheet file and accessed it after leaving his role at Google, although the plea agreement also says Levandowski was aware his “misappropriation” and possession of the trade secrets would do harm.
“Mr. Levandowski’s guilty plea in a criminal hearing today brings to an end a seminal case for our company and the self-driving industry, and underscores the value of Waymo’s intellectual property,” says a Waymo spokesperson in a statement given to The Verge. “Through today’s developments and related cases, we are successfully protecting our intellectual property as we build the world’s most experienced driver.”
Regardless, Levandowski’s plea agreement with federal prosecutors could translate to between 24 and 30 months of prison time. “Mr. Levandowski accepts responsibility and is looking forward to resolving this matter,” the engineer’s attorney, Miles Ehrlich, told The Washington Post in a statement. “Mr. Levandowski is a young man with enormous talents and much to contribute to the fast-moving world of [artificial intelligence] and [automated vehicles] and we hope that this plea will allow him to move on with his life and focus his energies where they matter most.”
More recently, Levandowski filed for bankruptcy protection after being ordered to pay Google $179 million over a contract dispute involving Levandowksi’s poaching of Waymo engineers. An arbitration panel ruled last December that the controversial engineer did in fact engage in unfair and deceptive practices through his recruiting of former colleagues. A San Francisco County court confirmed the ruling in early March, The New York Times reported.
Update March 19th, 10:51PM ET: Added statement from Waymo.