Weekly Brief: Levandowski – Once Upon Today in America

Former Waymo and Uber self-driving car-whiz kid, Anthony Levandowski was sentenced last week to 18 months in federal prison for stealing trade secrets.

Levandowski will also pay a $95,000 fine and $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo. The sentencing marks the end of a three-year saga that reads like a Hollywood crime script, with each turn more unpredictable and arresting than the last

He co-founded Google’s self-driving car program, now Waymo, in 2009 and served as the program’s technical lead until January 2016, when he left to co-found self-driving truck start-up Otto. Seven months later Uber acquired Otto for $680M and named Levandowski the head of its self-driving car division. He was on top of the tech world. He appeared in Wired Magazine as the go-to voice in Silicon Valley for self-driving cars and LiDAR technology. Journalists and business leaders sang his praises as a founding father of autonomous vehicles, the man who had done more than any other person on the planet to propel us toward a robo-taxi future.

Levandowski was so enraptured with the power of his vision that he started a church called Way of the Future, in which the God was not some omnipotent, omniscient deity but rather a god-bot known as Artificial Intelligence. However, Judgement Day arrived sooner than Levandowski expected. In February 2017 Google filed a lawsuit alleging that before leaving Waymo, he had downloaded some of its most confidential and valuable blueprints and design files. He then used them to found Otto, according to Google, and make hundreds of millions of dollars when Uber acquired Otto.

Plea bargain

Three years later, after dozens of days in court and legal actions between Waymo and Uber, and Uber and Levandowski, and Levandowski and Waymo, the verdict is finally in: Levandowski did it. He admitted as much last week in accepting his plea agreement. “The last three and a half years have forced me to come to terms with what I did,” he told the judge. “I want to take this time to apologize to my colleagues at Google, for betraying their trust, and to my entire family for the price they have paid and will continue to pay for my actions.”

Owing to the pandemic, he won’t start serving his sentence until after COVID-19 has passed. That’s a privilege plenty of non-white-collar criminals would appreciate, although the color of their crime or the color of their skin makes that unlikely given our broken criminal justice system. Indeed, the scale of Levandowski’s crime is so enormous it boggles the mind to think that he will serve less time than some kids who get caught with eight ounces of weed or a bag of dope.

Also, that’s not the end of the story. While being sentenced last week, he simultaneously launched his latest counter offensive: a new lawsuit that is part of his bankruptcy proceedings. It claims that Uber owes him $4Bn since the company, according to Levandowski, promised to protect him against any future legal actions when it acquired Otto in 2016. The lawsuit also claims that Levandowski wasn’t the only engineer to steal Waymo trade secrets.

It’s all as fascinating as it is infuriating. In the midst of global protests for racial justice and a global pandemic that has left millions sick, jobless, dead, desperate or destitute, the machinations of a white man who has broken the law and should already be in jail but, somehow, keeps finding a way to wiggle free and stay rich, feels like old news. The type of old news we have to listen to over and over again until we wise up and say enough is enough.

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