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Former Googler Anthony Levandowski ‘fesses up to pinching trade secrets about self-driving cars

But only for a progress update document, as Feds recommend 30-month stretch after reaching a deal on theft of IP that made its way to Uber

Former Google exec Anthony Levandowski has agreed to plead guilty to pinching secrets about Google’s self-driving car tech and sharing them with Uber.

The case against Levandowski alleged that he downloaded 14,000 files from Google's self-driving subsidiary Waymo. The files concerned Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) tech, which help self-driving cars perceive the world around them. Levandowski brought those files with him to own startup, called Ottomotto, which was acquired by Uber for US$680m.

Google sued Uber over the matter and the companies settled for $245m of Uber stock in 2018. Uber, for its part, said it did have Google docs, and offered the rather odd observation that while it didn’t think Google’s thinking had informed its own work, it was going to work really hard to make sure that was the case from then on.

Meanwhile, the US Attorney’s office took action against Levandowski, filing 33 charges (indictment here) alleging theft and attempted theft of trade secrets, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1832.

Levandowski pled guilty to the last of those 33 charges today, but that plea doesn't concern the 14,000 documents but instead a single weekly project tracking file called "Among the files downloaded between October 2015 and January 2016, was an internal tracking document entitled 'Chauffeur TL weekly updates – Q4 2015'."

As explained by the US Attorney's Office in its statement about the case, the file in question is called "contained a variety of details regarding the status of Google’s self-driving car program." But the document did not have technical content - and plenty of others others in the indictment list have names like "Presentation re LiDA Engineering issue" or "Laser Pulse Driver Design".

Levandowski's plea deal proposes to admit guilt for only the charge of lifting the tracking document, but for the Court to dismiss the remaining counts at sentencing. Doing so will likely see him do time for stealing a document, but avoid discussion of whether or not he pinched tech and put it to work.

The US Attorney nonetheless stated that "Levandowski admitted he downloaded the file with the intent to use it for the benefit of himself and Uber and that he accessed the document after his resignation from Google. Levandowski acknowledged that the document qualified as a trade secret. In sum, Levandowski admitted a reasonable estimate of the loss attributed to his conduct is up to $1,500,000."

Levandowski's lawyer, Miles Ehrlich, sent us a statement that says “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.”

Good luck with that, Mr Ehrlich - Levandowski is also embroiled in legal action with Google over poaching its employees to work at Ottomoto. Google wants US$179m in damages, a sum that led Levandowski to file for bankruptcy because his personal fortune of $50-$100m won't cover the matter. ®

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