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Uber Fires Engineer Accused Of Stealing Self-Driving Car Secrets From Google

Anthony Levandowski previously ran Uber's self-driving program.

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Updated on

Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of a self-driving lawsuit from Alphabet's autonomous vehicle unit Waymo, an Uber spoksperson confirmed.

Levandowski's termination, which is effective immediately, was earlier reported by The New York Times.

Levandowski's dismissal comes amid a bitter trade secrets lawsuit from Waymo, where he worked before departing to start his own self-driving truck company called Otto, which Uber acquired last year. Waymo alleges Levandowski downloaded thousands of files related to its self-driving program before starting Otto – and that Otto itself was a ruse, created as part of a cover-up scheme so Uber could acquire it and benefit from the information Levandowski took from Waymo.

Levandowski has pleaded the Fifth Amendment and for months has refused to comply with the company's investigation into Waymo's claims, should the case become a criminal matter. That prospect became more likely when US District Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the case, referred it to the US attorney on May 11.

Uber has maintained in court documents and hearings that Waymo's information has not crossed into its systems. Still, US District Judge William Alsup said earlier this month in a court order that Waymo's self-driving car secrets may have "seeped" into Uber's designs. The lack of cooperation from Levandowski put Uber in a difficult position. Asked whether Levandowski had downloaded files from Waymo, Uber's attorney Arturo Gonzalez told the court that “We don’t have any basis for disputing that." But, he added at a court hearing earlier this month, “there’s no evidence” Levandowski consulted the allegedly downloaded Waymo files once he began working at Uber.

Uber first demoted Levandowski on April 27, citing the need to remove him from leadership over work involving LiDAR – the technology at hand in the lawsuit – pending a trial. (LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a laser system that helps self-driving cars see.) Uber then installed Eric Meyhofer as its self-driving program's leader. With Levandowski now out of the company, his direct reports will also fall under Meyhofer.

Alsup, the judge in the case, told Uber in a court order earlier this month that it had no excuse to "pull any punches" to force Levandowski to comply with a legal investigation into Waymo's claims. The ride-hail company took the court's directive to heart. Earlier this month, legal filings showed that Uber threatened to fire Levandowski if he did not cooperate with an investigation into allegations that he stole trade secrets from Waymo. An Uber spokesperson said the company for months pressed Levandowski to comply with its internal investigation into the allegations, and set a deadline the engineer failed to meet.

"Your failure impeded Uber's internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit referenced above and constitutes a ground for termination for Cause," Uber's termination letter to Levandowski, dated Friday, reads.

Here's Uber's full termination letter to Levandowski:

Levandowski is not named as a party in the lawsuit. After Uber threatened to fire him, citing a court order pushing the company to compel him to cooperate with the investigation into Waymo's claims, his lawyers asked the judge to temper the order. On Tuesday, Levandowski's lawyers implored the court once again.

"The government—no matter the branch—may not force a person to
choose between her continued employment and her Fifth Amendment rights," a court filing reads.

Uber brought on Levandowski in the summer of 2016, along with the Otto team. Levandowski took the helm of the ride-hail giant's self-driving program and was tasked with leading the launch of Uber's self-driving pilot in Pittsburgh in September.

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick courted Levandowski himself to help jumpstart its self-driving program. According to Bloomberg, the pair took a series of 10-mile walks across San Francisco and Kalanick said "I feel like we’re brothers from another mother." Waymo's lawyers have yet to depose Kalanick.

Uber's termination letter to Levandowski notes that his stock agreement gives him 20 days to "cure" the scenario leading to his dismissal – in other words, to comply with Uber's internal investigation into Waymo's allegations. But it seems unlikely Levandowski will change course, given that he has resisted these calls from Uber for months.

Uber purchased Otto for $680 million. At a court hearing on May 12, Waymo’s lawyers pointed to a stock agreement that gave Levandowski more than $5 million shares of stock that would begin vesting on January 28, 2016 – the day after Levandowski quit Google. They said this amount of stock in Uber, a private company, would be equivalent to about $250 million. Uber said then that the agreement was signed at the time of the acquisition in July 2016. Levandowski's vesting is based on technical milestones and he had not yet vested any shares, Uber said.

Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Priya Anand at priya.anand@buzzfeed.com.

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