Former Uber exec sentenced to 18 months for trade secret theft

Judge sentences former Uber executive Anthony Levandowski to 18 months in prison.

Former Uber executive Anthony Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Tuesday after pleading guilty in March to one count of stealing Google trade secrets.

In sentencing Levandowski, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup said that “this is the biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen,” according to a statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. “This was not small.  This was massive in scale.” 

Anthony Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on Tuesday, August 4. Photo: FreightWaves
Ex-Uber executive Anthony Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Tuesday, August 4. Photo: FreightWaves.

Levandowski must pay a fine of $95,000 and Judge Alsup ordered him to pay nearly $756,500 in restitution to Waymo LLC, as Google’s self-driving program is now called. Levandowski was also sentenced to three years of supervised release.

Federal prosecutors had recommended a 27-month prison sentence for Levandowski after he admitted that the stolen document was Google’s trade secret as part of his plea agreement in March. 

He was originally charged in August 2019 with 33 counts of intellectual theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from self-driving startup Waymo.

However, his attorneys countered that he deserved up to one year of home confinement and community service, but no jail time, because he suffered repeated respiratory illnesses over the past six years.

Levandowski will be allowed to serve his sentence at a later date when “risks from the COVID-19 [pandemic] have subsided,” according to the DOJ statement.

Levandowski’s attorneys argued that sending Levandowski to prison during the pandemic could be a “death sentence” since the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been unable “to control the spread of the coronavirus.”

“While Mr. Levandowski certainly must be punished for his crime, we submit that, given the grave risks it carries, a custodial sentence right now is unnecessary and unwarranted in this case,” according to court documents.

What happened?

Prior to leaving Waymo parent company Alphabet, prosecutors alleged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 “Project Chauffeur” documents centered around advancements in the company’s LiDAR technology, from his work computer to his personal laptop in December 2015. Project Chauffeur later became Waymo LLC, after it was spun off from Google.

A short time later, Levandowski founded his own autonomous trucking startup, Otto, in 2016, which was bought by Uber (NYSE: UBER)  six months later for nearly $700 million.

In February 2017, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) filed suit against rival autonomous trucking startup Uber and Levandowski, alleging the two conspired to steal trade secrets to incorporate into Uber’s own self-driving efforts. Uber agreed to pay Google roughly $244 million to settle the suit in February 2018.

While Uber had an indemnification agreement to pay Levandowski’s legal fees and judgments as part of his contract, the company refused to honor the agreement after Levandowski pleaded guilty to one count of intellectual property theft. 

Levandowski filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court in March, the same day he was ordered to pay Google $179 million to settle an ongoing contract dispute.

In 2018, tech pioneer Levandowski co-founded Pronto.AI, developing a new aftermarket safety system for commercial trucks called Copilot, a far cry from the Level 5 autonomous vehicle technology he had been developing for the past 15 years.

“We’ve made some great improvements in the last 10 years, but we’ve kind of hit the ceiling where it’s difficult to generalize circumstances that exist on the road and have computers be able to handle all of [the possible issues] that happen,” Levandowski said at FreightWaves’ Transparency freight tech conference in Atlanta in May 2019.

Three months later, Levandowski was forced to step down as Pronto.AI’s CEO after he was indicted on federal charges. Robbie Miller took the reins as Pronto.AI’s CEO in late August 2019. 

Read more articles by FreightWaves’ Clarissa Hawes.
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