Uber Threatens To Fire Lead Engineer Over Court Order In Alleged Theft Of Waymo Trade Secrets

The lead lawyer for Uber has threatened to fire Anthony Levandowski, one of the company's top self-driving car engineers, if he refuses to cooperate with an ongoing investigation into accusations that he stole trade secrets from Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Google's parent company Alphabet. Levandowski previously worked for Waymo before joining Uber.

His path to Uber came by way of an acquisition. After departing Waymo, Levandowski co-founded Otto in January 2016. Just seven months later, his company was acquired by Uber for around $680 million. Since then, Alphabet has filed a lawsuit against Uber alleging the theft of nearly around 14,000 files amounting to nearly 10 gigabytes of data.

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At the advice of his own lawyer, Levandowski opted to broadly assert his Fifth Amendment rights because of the "potential for legal action." The Fifth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights and protects a person from having to testify against themselves in a criminal case. This is often referred to as "pleading the Fifth."

Uber has maintained that it knew nothing about the alleged theft of trade secrets and is not happy with Levandowski's decision to stay silent. While Levandowski has not been sued, Uber has now made it clear that he is to either cooperating with the court's investigation or face "adverse employment action."

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"While we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the court’s order requires us to make these demands of you," Salle Yoo, Uber’s general counsel, wrote in a letter to Levandowski. "We insist that you do everything in your power to assist us in complying with the order."

Uber and Waymo have locked horns in a battle for autonomous supremacy. While both are racing to bring autonomous technologies into the mainstream, the eventual winner could be decided by the outcome of this legal dispute. If it's ultimately decided that Uber is in possession of stolen trade secrets and is found liable, it would be a major blow to the company's efforts.

Levandowski's future is equally uncertain at this point.

"If you comply with these requirements, your employment at Uber will continue on an at-will basis," Yoo wrote. "We continue to believe that no Waymo trade secrets have ever been used in the development of our self-driving technology, and we remain confident that we will prove that fact in due course."

The ball is now in Levandowski's court.

Thumbnail Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Elekes Andor)