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Former Google self-driving car engineer charged with stealing trade secrets

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Otto the driver-less truck at a garage in San Francisco on May 12, 2016. Copyright Eric Risberg AP
Copyright Eric Risberg AP
By Cyrus Farivar with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Anthony Levandowski was once one of Google's top self-driving car engineers and was later fired from Uber. If convicted, he could face years in prison.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — A former Google self-driving car engineer was charged Tuesday with 33 counts of stealing or trying to steal the company's trade secrets related to the technology, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

The initial accusation that Anthony Levandowski stole secret materials from Google in 2015 rocked Silicon Valley and led to a blockbuster civil trial last year.

Levandowski, who is expected to appear in San Jose federal court Tuesday, could face up to a decade in prison if convicted.

"This morning we are announcing the criminal indictment of defendant Anthony Scott Levandowski for trade secret theft," U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a press conference in San Jose.

In 2017, Waymo — Google's self-driving car operation — sued Uber, and while Levandowski never testified at the trial the following year, his absence loomed large over it.

The fight began in February 2017, when Waymo publicly alleged that former star engineer Levandowski "downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo's various hardware systems," including a crucial laser-based system known as LiDAR.

In federal charges unsealed Tuesday, the government claims that in December 2015, Levandowski took nearly 10 gigabytes of secret data from his employer.

"Silicon Valley is not the Wild West," said John Bennett, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco bureau, at the same press conference. "The fast-paced and competitive environment does not mean that federal laws can be ignored."

Levandowski abruptly left Google early in 2016, founding the company Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber for $680 million — an astonishing amount for a company that was only several months old.

In 2017, during hearings in the run-up to the civil trial, Levandowski fought hard to keep silent. He repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, protecting himself against self-incrimination and was threatened with being fired rather than comply with court orders.

According to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's July 2017 deposition, Levandowski downloaded the files as an "insurance policy" to protect a $120 million bonus from Google. But Kalanick was blunt with his analysis of his then-employee's behavior: "That's pretty f---ing dumb."

After four days of trial in February 2018, the lawsuit ended in a surprise settlement.

Since beingfired from Uber in May 2017, Levandowski has gone on to found a related company called Pronto, which he announced in December 2018. Its top executives include veterans from Uber, Otto and Google.

Pronto did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment as to how its operations would be affected by the indictment of its CEO.

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