SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, the star engineer at the center of its high-stakes legal fight over driverless cars.
Levandowski, the 37-year-old former chief of Uber’s self-driving program, was given notice on Friday, according to a termination letter obtained Tuesday by the Washington Post. The company cited his failure to comply with a judge’s request that he turn over thousands of documents that he is accused of stealing from Google’s parent company, where he had worked as a senior engineer in driverless cars.
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. Under those terms, Levandowski had to promise that he would not disclose trade secrets or proprietary information from his previous employer when he came on board.
The company said his failure to share the documents hamstrung the company’s internal probe.
“Consistent with our agreements with you, your employment is hereby terminated for Cause, and that termination shall become effective 20 days from today,” Uber General Counsel Salle Yoo wrote in the termination letter. “Your failure [to comply with legal requests] impeded Uber’s internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit.”
But Levandowski has cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as a reason why he will not turn over those documents, which reside on his personal computer. In a statement on Tuesday, his lawyers argued that a person cannot be fired for invoking one’s Fifth Amendment rights.
The firing is the latest twist in a case that has pit two Silicon Valley giants over a technology many believe could transform transportation in the United States.
Levandowski was a senior engineer in Waymo, the eight-year-old self-driving car program launched by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
Two years ago, Uber began developing self-driving cars on its own. Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick called the program “existential” to the company’s future because it could dramatically lower labor costs. To shore up the effort, Uber brought in Levandowski, after acquiring his months-old self-driving truck startup, Otto.
Levandowski’s firing represents Uber’s latest effort to extract itself from a series of escalating controversies that have consumed and shaken the ride-sharing company, analysts said. Uber has faced a barrage of negative press this year in the wake of high-profile sexual harassment complaints and a slew of executive departures. Kalanick this weekend also faced personal tragedy — his mother was killed and his father was seriously injured in a boating accident.
Some legal analysts said Uber may also be trying to regain the good graces of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, which is hearing Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber. Until now the company had defended and protected Levandowski, even as a district judge became increasingly frustrated with his decision to not turn over key documents. Uber replaced Levandowski as head of its driverless division in April before firing him Friday.
The company is trying to show that it is “doing everything in its power to comply with the court ruling,” said Christopher Broderick, an attorney focusing on trade secrets issues with Manatt, Phelps, and Phillips LLP.
Levandowski is not personally being sued. The lawsuit between the two tech giants hinges on whether Waymo can prove that Uber was either aware or colluded with Levandowski in stealing the documents. Uber has denied wrongdoing in the case.
“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” Angela Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, wrote in an all-staff email on Tuesday.
In May, a district judge dealt a further blow to Uber when he referred the trade secrets case to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal investigation.
Levandowski is accused of downloading 14,000 documents from his Google computers onto a hard drive and then uploading them into his personal computer and bring them to Uber.
But Uber has also refused to share several thousand additional documents with the court, citing confidentiality rules between attorneys and their clients. It was unclear whether Uber would now share that information. Outside experts have said that the volume of documents being withheld was highly unusual, and Uber’s decision to withhold them had irritated the judge.
As a condition of his hiring, Levandowski was awarded more than $250 million in Uber stock. His firing means he will not see that compensation, Uber officials said.