Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who was at the center of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has pleaded guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets while working at Google under a plea agreement reached with the U.S. District Attorney.
While Levandowski still faces a possible prison sentence of between 24 to 30 months, the outcome is much rosier than it could have been. In August, federal grand jury indicted Levandowski on 33 counts of theft and attempted theft. He was looking at a protracted legal fight and a trial that wasn’t expected to begin until 2021.
“Mr. Levandowski accepts responsibility and is looking forward to resolving this matter. Mr. Levandowski is a young man with enormous talents and much to contribute to the fast-moving world of AI and AV and we hope that this plea will allow him to move on with his life and focus his energies where they matter most,” his attorney, Miles Ehrlich said in an emailed statement.
Under the plea agreement, Levandowski admits to downloading thousands of files related to Project Chauffeur, the Google self-driving project that later spun out to become Waymo. Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members of Project Chauffeur, which launched in 2009. Scroll down to read the plea agreement.
He said that in 2015, prior to leaving to start his own self-driving trucking company, he downloaded 14,000 documents from an internal Google server and transferred it to his laptop. Levandowski specifically pleaded guilty to count 33 of the indictment, which is related to taking what was known as the Chauffeur Weekly Update, a spreadsheet that contained a variety of details including quarterly goals and weekly metrics, the team’s objectives and key results as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome, according to the filing.
Levandowski said in the plea agreement that he downloaded the Chauffeur Weekly Update to his personal laptop on or about January 17, 2016, and accessed the document after his resignation from Google, which occurred about 10 days later.
“Mr. Levandowski’s guilty plea in a criminal hearing today brings to an end a seminal case for our company and the self-driving industry and underscores the value of Waymo’s intellectual property,” a Waymo spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Through today’s development and related cases, we are successfully protecting our intellectual property as we build the world’s most experienced driver.”
Levandowski left Google and started Otto, a self-driving trucking company that was then bought by Uber. Waymo later sued Uber for trade secret theft. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial and ended in a settlement, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber. Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.
The plea deal puts an end to any criminal charges. However, Levandowski still faces a civil matter. An arbitration panel ruled in December that Levandowski and Lior Ron had engaged in unfair competition and breached their contract with Google when they left the company to start a rival autonomous vehicle company focused on trucking, called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in 2017. Earlier this month, San Francisco County court confirmed the panel’s decision and order Levandowski to pay $179 million.
Ron settled in February 2019 with Google for $9.7 million. Levandowski had disputed the ruling. The San Francisco County Superior Court denied his petition, granting Google’s petition to hold Levandowski to the arbitration agreement under which he was liable. Levandowski himself may not have to pay the money personally, as this sort of liability may fall to his employer depending on his contract or other legal quirks. However, Levandowski personally filed March 4 for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, stating that the presumptive $179 million debt quite exceeds his assets, which he estimates at somewhere between $50 million and $100 million.