A former Google engineer was charged Tuesday with stealing self-driving car technology from the company shortly before he joined Uber’s efforts to catch up in the high-stakes race to build robotic vehicles.
The indictment filed by the US attorney’s office in San Jose, California, is an offshoot of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by Waymo, a self-driving car pioneer spun off from Google.
Uber agreed to pay Waymo $245 million to settle the case last year, but the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit made an unusual recommendation to open a criminal probe after seeing enough evidence to conclude a theft may have occurred.
Uber considered having self-driving technology crucial to survive and counter potential competitive threats from Waymo and dozens of other companies working on robotic vehicles.
Uber wants to build self-driving cars so it can eliminate the need to have a human behind the wheel, one of the biggest expenses in its still-unprofitable ride-hailing service.
Anthony Levandowski, a pioneer in robotic vehicles, was charged with 33 counts of trade secrets theft. He could be sentenced up to 10 years and fined $250,000 per count, $8.25 million altogether.
Prosecutors say the probe is ongoing, but they wouldn’t say whether Uber and former CEO Travis Kalanick are targets.
Prosecutors say Google and Uber cooperated in the investigation.
Ex-Google engineer charged in Uber self-driving theft case