Ex-Google engineer charged with stealing trade secrets for driverless cars

/ CBS/AP

A former Google engineer was charged with stealing closely guarded secrets that he allegedly later sold to Uber as the ride-hailing service scrambled to catch up in the high-stakes race to build robotic vehicles.

The indictment filed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney's office in San Jose, California, charges Anthony Levandowski, 39, with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. A pioneer in robotic vehicles, Levandowski could be sentenced up to 10 years and fined $250,000 per count.

The case 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, but the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit made an unusual recommendation to open a criminal probe.

Anthony Levandowski, Otto Co-founder and VP of Engineering at Uber, speaks to members of the press during the launch of the pilot model of the Uber self-driving car at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Afp / AFP/Getty Images

The indictment claims that Levandowski downloaded numerous files related to Google's work on self-driving car and Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) technology in the months before he left the company. Levandowski, the head of Google's LiDAR engineering team, was allegedly involved with two businesses that competed with Google in self-driving technology, one of which was ultimately acquired by Uber.

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"All of us have the right to change jobs," said United States Attorney David L. Anderson in a Tuesday statement. "None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation."

Uber considered having self-driving technology crucial to survive.

First published on August 27, 2019 / 3:02 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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