Trump Pardons Ex-Google Engineer Who Plead Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets Related to Lidar Technology

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【Summary】In the final hours of his presidency, President Trump pardoned former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski who was one of most high profile engineers working on self-driving cars in Silicon Valley. Levandowski was accused of stealing trade secrets and other IP from Google then taking them to rival Uber in the days before his resignation. The U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges against Levandowski in Aug 2019 for the theft.

Eric Walz    Feb 26, 2021 9:30 AM PT
Trump Pardons Ex-Google Engineer Who Plead Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets Related to Lidar Technology
Ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski at Otto's San Francisco headquarters in 2016.

Outgoing U.S. presidents traditionally issue a slew of final hour pardons, and President Trump is no exception. However, one of the most surprising pardons was granted to former head engineer of Google's self-driving car project Anthony Levandowski.

In the final hours of his presidency, Trump pardoned the former Google engineer who was one of most high profile engineers working on self-driving cars in Silicon Valley. 

Levandowski is a well-known figure in Silicon Valley circles. He worked on Google's early self-driving car project for over a decade, where he led work on lidar technology for autonomous driving. 

Levandowski abruptly resigned from Google without notice in Jan 2016 to launch autonomous trucking startup Otto, taking several key Google employees with him in his new venture. Otto set up shop in San Francisco.

In August 2016, Uber purchased Otto for a reported $680 million in an effort to jumpstart its own self-driving car efforts. Uber planned to add self-driving vehicles to its ride-hailing platform and formed a new division called Uber Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG) to lead that effort. After acquiring Otto, Uber tapped Levandowski to lead Uber ATG. 

But when he left Google, Levandowski was accused of stealing trade secrets and other IP then taking them to Uber in the days before his resignation.

In Feb 2017, Google's autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber over the theft, which included around 14,000 files, or approximately 9.6 GB worth of intellectual property from a secure Waymo server that stored engineering documents and technical drawings related to lidar development. 

Lidar is used by autonomous vehicles for navigation. Lidar detects surrounding objects by projecting pulses of laser beams, measuring the time it takes for the light to reflect back off nearby objects. The technology is key for Alphabet's self-driving subsidiary Waymo, Uber and many other tech companies and automakers developing self-driving vehicles.

The resulting court case made headlines and was one of the biggest involving the theft of intellectual property in Silicon Valley in recent memory.

In a statement released by Waymo after filing its lawsuit, the company wrote "Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions."

That case was eventually settled in February 2018. Under terms of the settlement, Uber agreed to give Waymo a 0.34 percent equity stake, worth approximately $245 million at the time. The settlement terms however included no admission of guilt on Uber's part.

The settlement was much less than Waymo was originally seeking. Waymo had initially sought damages of $1.9 billion.

However, in August 2019, the U.S. The Department of Justice got involved and filed criminal charges against Levandowski for stealing trade secrets from Waymo and taking them to rival Uber.

Levandowski was charged with 33 counts of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets. Federal prosecutors recommend a prison term of no more than 30 months.

Levandowski pleaded guilty in March 2020. As part of the plea deal, Levandowski pleaded guilty to one count, which accused him of downloading files to his personal computer that tracked the progress and goals of Google's self-driving project. 

"I downloaded these files with the intent to use them for my own personal benefit, and I understand that I was not authorized to take the files for that purpose," Levandowski said in court filings last year.

Levandowski filed for bankruptcy last year to negotiate his debts. The bankruptcy declaration came after a California state court confirmed that Levandowski still owed $179 million to Google for violating his employment contracts.

Levandowski has kept a relatively low profile in Silicon Valley for the past year and his future plans are unclear. Since he pleaded guilty, some tech companies may be reluctant to hire him. But Levandowski's attorney is optimistic about his future.

"We hope that this plea will allow him to move on with his life and focus his energies where they matter most," developing new technologies, Levandowski's attorney, Miles Ehrlich, said in a statement last year after his plea deal.

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