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Uber fires self-driving vehicle chief accused of stealing Google's tech

31 May 2017

Uber on Tuesday confirmed that it has fired an engineer accused in a trade secrets suit involving files he purportedly purloined from Alphabet's self-driving auto unit Waymo.

Google's self-driving auto division, Waymo, sued Uber in February, claiming that Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 files while he was a Google employee, including trade secrets.

In May, a district judge dealt a further blow to Uber when he referred the trade secrets case to the US attorney's office for criminal investigation.

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 auto to "see" its surroundings, and to return any stolen documents to Waymo. Uber replaced Levandowski as head of its driverless division in April before firing him Tuesday.

Levandowski's termination comes less than two weeks after Uber, under pressure from U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, threatened to cut him loose if he did not waive his Fifth Amendment rights and turn over his personal devices and files to the court.

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In the same order, Levandowski was also banned from working on research related to LIDAR, a critical component of Uber's self-driving technology.

San Francisco-based Uber appears to be blaming the stolen documents exclusively on Levandowski in an effort to defend itself against Waymo's lawsuit. Uber seems to suggest in its letter that this may not have been the case.

Levandowski's expertise in robot-controlled cars is the main reason that the ride-hailing company bought his startup for $680 million nine months ago.

Uber said his refusal to hand over those documents - a key piece of evidence in the lawsuit between Uber and Google's parent company - violated the terms of his employment. Uber wants to develop a fleet of self-driving cars so its service eventually won't have to rely on people to pick up passengers. The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on any possible investigation.

In a court filing, Levandowski's attorneys argued that it's unconstitutional for a judge to strong-arm an employer into pressuring a worker to give up his Fifth Amendment rights to remain on the job. Otto was acquired by Uber for $680m in August 2016, and Levandowski was installed as the head of Uber's self-driving vehicle program. Yoo writes that Levandowski's failure to comply with the court order constitutes a potential "breach" of the employment agreement. An Uber spokesman said earlier this month that none of Mr. Levandowski's 5.3 million Uber shares, or more than $250 million, had yet vested because milestones hadn't been met.

Uber fires self-driving vehicle chief accused of stealing Google's tech