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.
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