A former Google engineer spent months downloading Google’s secret files on self-driving cars before he abruptly quit the company in 2016 to run Uber's autonomous vehicle program, federal prosecutors alleged on Tuesday.
The engineer, Anthony Levandowski, has been charged with 33 counts of stealing trade secrets.
U.S. Attorney David Anderson said that a forensic investigation revealed that Levandowski downloaded around 14,000 files belonging to Google on or around Dec. 11, 2015, and that he later transferred those and other files to his personal laptop and then gave them to Uber.
The files included critical engineering information, schematics and engineering drawings related to Google’s self-driving vehicle program, prosecutor said, as well as documents revealing how Google developed lidar, the company's groundbreaking technology that allows self-driving cars to detect other vehicles in the vicinity using laser light.
“The FBI will not tolerate the theft of trade secrets,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett. “These are the crown jewels of companies. These are heavily protected, confidential information, and accessible on a need to know basis.”
Federal officials said Uber is cooperating with the investigation. Uber confirmed that in a statement.
Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle spinoff, said in a statement: “We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case.”
The FBI opened its criminal investigation into the alleged trade-secret theft after Waymo sued Uber in 2017. That suit resulted in Uber paying $245 million as a settlement.
At the time, Uber denied having any knowledge of the documents, but fired Levandowski. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick testified that Uber was not involved in the theft of any documents, according to the Associated Press.
They would not say if authorities were looking at any additional suspects.
Levandowski’s attorneys said the charges against their client were baseless.
“He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” his legal team wrote in a statement.
After leaving Uber, Levandowski created another company called Pronto AI, where he has been developing autonomous driving technology aimed at trucks.
On Tuesday, the company said in a statement it was replacing Levandowski as its CEO.
"The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to Lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology," the company said in statement. "Of course, we are fully supportive of Anthony and his family during this period."