Prosecutors recommend prison for former Uber exec who stole trade secrets

Former Uber executive Anthony Levandowski is scheduled to be sentenced on August 4.

Federal prosecutors have recommended a 27-month prison sentence for Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Uber’s self-driving division, as well as three years of supervised release.

Levandowski pleaded guilty in March to one count of stealing Google trade secrets after he was originally charged with 33 counts of intellectual theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from self-driving startup Waymo in August 2019. 

Levandowski’s attorney countered that he deserves up to one year of home confinement but no prison time. Court documents claim that over the past six years, Levandowski has had repeated respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia in 2015 and 2017. 

His attorneys argue in court documents that sending Levandowski to prison during the COVID-19 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.

Sentencing is set for Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

What happened?

Prior to leaving Waymo parent company Alphabet, prosecutors allege 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 IP 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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