Uber Axes Self-Driving Car Executive Amid Lawsuit

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Uber Technologies Inc. fired the self-driving car executive it had hired Anthony Levandowski, yielding to rising pressure in its court fight with rival Waymo to part ways with the engineer after he failed to comply with a court order to hand over documents as a judge concluded he took thousands of confidential files from the Alphabet Inc. unit.

Levandowski joined the ride-hailing startup in 2016 after spending several years at Google’s autonomous driving project, which is now called Waymo. In February, Waymo sued Uber alleging that Levandowski stole trade secrets and patents from Waymo by downloading more than 14,000 documents for the development of self-driving technology and brought them to Uber.

Uber said in a letter to Levandowski filed in federal court on Tuesday that it was firing him because he had not complied with a court order to hand over the documents.

He has declined to cooperate as he has invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify in the case, deterring Uber’s ability to defend itself against Waymo’s claims.

Levandowski, one the most respected self-driving engineers in Silicon Valley, was supposed to help the ride services company catch up to rivals including Waymo, in the race for self-driving technology. Unfortunately, the hiring led to a court fight and the threat of criminal charges instead. In April, Uber replaced him as the head of its self-driving car unit before finally making the decision to fire him.

The firing indicates a split between Uber and Levandowski, who for months had presented an allied front in the fight against Waymo’s claims. After U.S. District Judge William Alsup told Uber its actions didn’t suffice to compel Levandowski to cooperate, the company threatened to fire him if he didn’t change his stance. The engineer had countered that it was an unfair burden to make him choose between his constitutional rights against self-incrimination and his job.

Uber and Alphabet are battling over technology expected to revolutionize the way people use cars. Waymo claims its trade secrets made their way into Uber’s Lidar technology, which bounces light pulses off objects so self-driving cars can “see” the road. Uber denies these claims.

In a termination letter dated May 26, Uber gave Levandowski 20 days to comply with the requests to help in the investigation. He isn’t a defendant in Waymo’s lawsuit, though Alsup had asked federal prosecutors to investigate claims made in the case.

In a May 11 order, U.S. District Judge William Alsup gave Uber until May 31 to turn over all Waymo materials downloaded by Levandowski before he left the company. While Uber hasn’t denied that Levandowski took the proprietary files, the company has repeatedly insisted that they can’t be found on its computer servers.

Shortly after Uber announced Levandowski’s ouster on Tuesday, his lawyer filed arguments in court urging the judge to pull back the May 11 order, which led to Uber’s initial threat to fire Levandowski.

“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.

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