Technology

How U.S. ended up targeting a star Google engineer

Just a few years ago, the sci-fi future of self-driving cars seemed suddenly attainable.

The emergence of new technologies including advanced computer vision systems spurred a gold rush. Billions of dollars began to flow into startups while major tech and automotive companies also pushed to recruit the best talent to spark their own autonomous car projects. Optimistic projections put self-driving cars in the daily lives of people within their lifetime — and early road tests made the technology seem tantalizingly close.

Perhaps no person better represented that gold rush than Anthony Levandowski, who was charged by federal prosecutors with 33 counts of stealing or trying to steal technology from Google.

In an arraignment hearing before a federal magistrate judge in San Jose on Tuesday, Levandowski’s lawyer Ismail Ramsey said that his client pleaded not guilty to all 33 counts against him. Levandowski appeared in a suit, without a necktie, and was not in handcuffs.

Long before federal prosecutors accused him of stealing trade secrets from Google’s self-driving car division, Levandowski was a rising star in the Bay Area world of engineering who for years pushed computing boundaries of all kinds.

And his celebrity in the self-driving car world proved lucrative. Though Levandowski was paid $120 million by Google, he left the company to start a self-driving truck company that would be acquired by Uber in just a few months — a move that would lead to concerns that he had taken valuable self-driving technology from Google to Uber.

Levandowski began to be noticed as early as 2001, when as a junior at the University of California, Berkeley, he led a team of students in a Lego MindStorms competition. The winning entry? Their tiny robot, dubbed “BillSortBot,” which was capable of sorting Monopoly money.

He was profiled again by the university itself in 2003, where he boasted that he spent four hours a day on his small tech company, La Raison (“The Reason”), which apparently allowed him to earn enough money to buy a house in a nearby town. The interview offered the first of many soundbites that Levandowski would generate in the coming years.

“I’ve never done much homework,” he said at the time. “I think it’s pointless. No wait, don’t write that down!”

Levandowski’s interests began to coalesce around the nascent field of self-driving cars, which truly began in earnest in 2004. That year, the Department of Defense organized a competition for the first time, offering a $1 million prize to the first team that could build a vehicle that could travel 150 miles on its own in the desert of southeastern California.

While no teams finished that year, Levandowski, then 24, led a team of Berkeley engineers who had an entirely different strategy: They used a motorcycle, rather than a conventional four-wheeled car. They called it the Ghostrider. Even though it didn’t win, the motorcycle was memorialized in the Smithsonian.

Levandowski would end up at Google through another startup, VuTool, which was essential in the early efforts of Google Street. VuTool was reportedly acquired by Google around March 2007, but even as a Google employee, Levandowski was working on side projects — one of which would be acquired by his employer. He founded 510 Systems, which specialized in the laser tracking necessary in highly accurate distance measuring and mapping. Google reportedly acquired 510 Systems in 2011.

The acquisition moved the highly paid Levandowski into Google’s secretive and experimental “X” division, where he was meant to work on an advanced laser system, known as LiDAR.

Levandowski continued to work at Google for years on self-driving cars, famously quipping in a 2013 interview with The New Yorker: “I only do cool s—.”

But as 2014 and 2015 rolled on, it appeared that Levandowski was increasingly frustrated with Google’s methodical pace of developing its self-driving technology, then known as “Project Chauffeur,” and now known as Waymo.

According to a civil complaint by Waymo and the criminal indictment on Tuesday, Levandowski downloaded thousands of confidential files in December 2015 and used them to build up a company that was quickly sold to Uber for $680 million. Within months, federal investigators began their criminal probe of Levandowski.

During the opening day of the Waymo v. Uber trial in February 2018, Uber’s lawyer, William Carmody, underscored that Levandowski stood to directly benefit from Google’s success — denying that Uber benefited from Levandowski’s download.

“You know what the purpose of that program was? To make Anthony Levandowski rich if Chauffeur succeeds,” Carmody said. He brushed off Levandowski’s 14,000-file download as “unimportant.”

“You know what else Waymo didn’t tell you? That Uber never got any proprietary information,” he said, noting that Waymo served as a “race official” to inspect Uber’s own cars, “to make sure there’s no cheating.”

In the end, Waymo and Uber abruptly settled the lawsuit.

The lawsuit didn’t stop Levandowski. He co-founded another startup, Pronto, and in December claimed to have ridden across the country in a self-driving car.

“I don’t really dwell on the past,” he told The Guardian.

By the end of the hearing on Tuesday, Levandowski and prosecutors agreed that he would pay a $300,000 cash bond, and two northern California properties belonging to family and friends — for a total of $2 million— were offered up as sureties to conceivably prevent him from fleeing.

Prosecutors argued that Levandowski should have some restrictions placed upon his movements, particularly given that he is “extremely wealthy,” and is a dual citizen of the United States and France. Authorities noted that the FBI is currently in possession of both of his passports.

His defense team denied that Levandowski was a flight risk and underscored his willingness to cooperate.

Levandowski has been ordered to wear an ankle monitor and not leave the region without advance notice to the court. His next court appearance has been scheduled for September.