Uber Technologies Inc. fired Anthony Levandowski, the engineer hired to lead its self-driving car efforts who is now at the center of a legal dispute over the technology with Google parent Alphabet Inc.
Levandowski joined Uber in 2016 after several years at Google’s autonomous driving project, which is now called Waymo. Earlier this year, Waymo filed suit against ride-hailing startup Uber alleging that Levandowski stole trade secrets and patents from Waymo for the development of self-driving technology, and brought it to Uber. Levandowski has invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify in the case, hindering Uber’s ability to defend itself against Waymo’s claims.
In the letter terminating Levandowski’s employment, Uber said it is firing the engineer because he failed to comply with the investigation into the lawsuit. A May 15 letter from Uber General Counsel Salle Yoo warned the company would fire Levandowski if he did not cooperate.
Levandowski, who isn’t a defendant in Waymo’s lawsuit, argued in a court filing earlier this month that a May 11 order from U.S. District Judge William Alsup had imposed an impossible burden on the engineer. It forced him to choose between his Constitutional rights against self-incrimination or his job and the order should be amended, his lawyer Miles Ehrlich wrote in the filing.
Shortly after Uber announced the firing of Levandowski, his lawyer filed arguments in court Tuesday urging the judge to back off his earlier order.
"The government -- no matter the branch -- may not force a person to choose between her continued employment and her Fifth Amendment rights," Levandowski’s lawyer wrote in the filing.
Lawyers for Levandowski didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional comment. An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment further on the termination. A representative for Waymo didn’t immediately comment.
Waymo’s lawsuit, filed in February, accused Levandowski of illicitly downloading 14,000 files, including some on Waymo’s lidar, a key component of self-driving systems. Alsup ruled earlier this month that Levandowski needed to step aside from working on the technology at Uber until the Waymo dispute was settled.
Uber employees were told about the termination in a staff email on Tuesday. Levandowski’s tenure at the private ride-hailing juggernaut, valued at almost $70 billion, was brief and dramatic. He came to Uber via the acquisition of Otto, an autonomous trucking startup he formed after leaving Waymo. With his arrival, Uber received another injection of engineers experienced with building self-driving systems. A year before, Uber jump-started its own autonomous program after hiring a slew of roboticists from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Some Uber executives and investors had voiced concern that the company’s lack of stake in the field placed it at an disadvantage against Alphabet and traditional carmakers, which have invested heavily in the tech.
In April, Uber replaced Levandowski as head of its self-driving program. The New York Times reported on Levandowski’s termination earlier Tuesday.
By Mark Bergen