Anthony Levandowski, former Google engineer, sent to jail for stealing robocar secrets

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In this September 24, 2019 photo, former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski speaks to the media, as his lawyer Miles Ehrlich stands behind him outside a federal courthouse in San Francisco.

The Associated Press

A former Google engineer was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing trade secrets before joining Uber’s efforts to build robotic vehicles for its ridesharing service.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s conviction on Tuesday came more than four months after former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors who filed a criminal case against him last August.

Levandowski, who helped pilot Google’s self-driving car project before landing at Uber, was also ordered to pay more than $ 850,000.

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Alsup had taken the unusual step of recommending that the Justice Department open a criminal investigation into Levandowski while presiding over a high-profile civil lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, a spin-off from an autonomous car project that Google started in 2007 after having hired Levandowski to be a part of his team.

Levandowski was ultimately disappointed with Google and left the company in early 2016 to start his own self-driving truck business, called Otto, which Uber ultimately bought for $ 680 million.

Before leaving Google, however, Levandowski downloaded a wealth of self-driving car technologies from Google, earning him 33 counts of intellectual property theft. He ended up pleading guilty to one count, culminating in Tuesday’s conviction.

The charges have transformed Levandowski, once highly regarded for his self-driving debut, into a notorious figure “almost synonymous with unleashed greed in Silicon Valley,” his own lawyers admitted in court documents filed last week.

Lawyers argued that Levandowski deserved some leniency as there was never any evidence that he used Google’s trade secrets while overseeing Uber’s self-driving car division. He lost that job in 2017 while asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while Uber still defended himself against Waymo’s civil lawsuit.

Uber settled its case with Waymo for $ 245 million a few days in a lawsuit featuring its former CEO Travis Kalanick speaking about some of his discussions with Levandowski over the rideshare service’s desire to win the race to build self-driving cars.

Levandowski, 40, faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of $ 250,000. In addition to sentencing Levandowski to 18 months in prison, Alsup fined him $ 95,000 and ordered him to pay Waymo $ 756,499 to reimburse the company for costs it incurred in helping the government in his investigation.

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It seems uncertain whether Levandowski can afford to make the payments. He filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after another court upheld an arbitration ruling requiring him to pay Google $ 179 million, most of which was a bonus he received for his work on autonomous cars.

In his victim impact statement, Waymo told Alsup that “Levandowski’s misconduct was extremely disruptive and harmful to Waymo, amounted to betrayal, and the financial effects would likely have been even more severe if it had not been detected.

In documents explaining why Levandowski deserved a prison sentence, US Attorney David Anderson called his theft a “brazen and shocking” act that seemed motivated as much by ego as greed.

“Levandowski’s actions suggest that he wanted to be seen as the singular inventor of the autonomous car, as Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone,” Anderson wrote.

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