Uber has fired the head of its self-driving car unit, Anthony Levandowski, amid the continuing fallout from the engineer’s alleged theft of trade secrets from his former employer, Google.
The termination, which was first reported by the New York Times, comes three months after Levandowksi was accused of stealing 14,000 internal documents from Google’s self-driving car spinoff, Waymo, and taking them to Uber. Waymo sued Uber in February, alleging that the ride-hail company was using the stolen documents to advance its lidar technology, and the case between the two Silicon Valley firms is set to go to trial in October.
Uber has denied any wrongdoing, but Levandowski has invoked his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. He has refused to turn over any documents or answer questions during a deposition.
On 12 May, a federal judge granted Waymo a preliminary injunction against Uber that required the company to remove Levandowski from any work on lidar, the technology that allows a self-driving car to “see” its surroundings, and to return any stolen documents to Waymo.
In Levandowski’s termination letter, which was included in a court filing and is dated 26 May, Uber general counsel Salle Yoo cited Levandowski’s failure to comply with the court order as the cause of his firing. Yoo also wrote that Levandowski’s actions had “impeded Uber’s internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit”.
The letter also revealed that Uber required Levandowski to have “returned or destroyed all property and confidential information belonging to any prior employer” as a condition of his employment. Yoo writes that Levandowski’s failure to comply with the court order constitutes a potential “breach” of the employment agreement.
|On 12 May, a federal judge granted Waymo a preliminary injunction against Uber that required the company to remove Levandowski from any work on lidar and to return any stolen documents to Waymo. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP
Attorneys for Levandowski did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but they have argued in court filings that the preliminary injunction infringes on Levandowski’s constitutional rights by compelling Uber to fire him if he does not waive his fifth amendment right.The Guardian
Levandowski was one of several alumni of Google’s self-driving car program who founded the self-driving truck startup Otto in 2016. Otto was acquired by Uber for $680m in August 2016, and Levandowski was installed as the head of Uber’s self-driving car program. Levandowski was awarded $250m in Uber stock as part of the deal, according to documents revealed in court.
In February, Google’s self-driving car spinoff Waymo sued Uber, alleging that Levandowski had downloaded 14,000 documents prior to leaving, and used the stolen technology to help Uber get a jump start with its own self-driving car program.
Levandowski could face criminal charges over the alleged theft. The judge overseeing the civil case recommended that federal prosecutors begin a criminal investigation on 12 May. Violations of the federal trade secrets law can carry up to a 10-year prison term.
Eric Meyhofer will take over Levandowski’s role in charge of Uber’s self-driving car program, an Uber spokesperson said.
The turmoil in Uber’s self-driving car program is just one of numerous scandals rocking the $68bn company. A report on Uber’s work environment is expected next week, following allegations of a widespread sexual harassment and gender discrimination by a former employee earlier this year. The company has seen an exodus of executives in recent months and a viral consumer boycott.
Last week, Uber admitted to underpaying New York City drivers tens of millions of dollars in fares. The company is under criminal investigation by the US justice department over its use of “Greyball”, a program that enabled it to evade enforcement officers in cities where it was operating illegally.