Anthony Levandowski was an engineer on the Google car project, which became Waymo, and later worked on Uber's autonomous car efforts
Anthony Levandowski was an engineer on the Google car project, which became Waymo, and later worked on Uber's autonomous car efforts AFP / Glenn CHAPMAN

A former Google engineer was hit with criminal charges Tuesday alleging he stole trade secrets from the technology giant's self-driving car project before he went to work at Uber.

If convicted on the charges, Anthony Levandowski faces up to 10 years in prison and a penalty of $250,000 per violation, according federal prosecutors who announced the criminal indictment.

"All of us have the right to change jobs, none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door," US Attorney David Anderson said in a release announcing 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets.

"Theft is not innovation."

Levandowski, 39, was a founding member of the group that worked on Waymo, a Google self-driving car project that is now a unit at parent company Alphabet.

Levandowski worked on the project from 2009 and was leader of the light-detecting and ranging (LiDAR) team when he resigned from Google without notice in January of 2016, according to the indictment.

The former star engineer left Google for his own startup called Otto, which was later acquired by Uber.

The theft allegations came out in a civil case in which Waymo accused Uber of stealing trade secrets. That case ended with a settlement between the two firms last year.

Levandowski was fired by Uber in 2017 as the two firms were preparing to go to court on the civil trial.

Waymo had alleged that Uber conspired with Levandowski, who according to Tuesday's indictment downloaded files that included circuit board schematics, instructions for installing and testing LiDAR, and an internal tracking document.

A source familiar with the confidential deal said Uber agreed to a financial settlement giving the Alphabet unit a small stake in Uber.

The indictment shows both the civil and criminal cases were about LiDAR, a laser-based system which is critical to enabling autonomous cars to get a three-dimensional picture of its surroundings.

The documents states that Levandowski downloaded thousands of files before leaving Google including "critical engineering information" about the hardware and instructions for calibrating and tuning Google's custom LiDAR.

Before the civil trial was cut short by the settlement, jurors saw evidence which was embarrassing for Uber, including a text message in which former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick told Levandowski to "burn the village."

After the settlement, the newly named Uber CEO said that "we do not believe that any trade secrets made their way from Waymo to Uber."

Tesla, Waymo, Uber as well as major car companies and other technology firms are rivals in what is expected to be a large market for autonomous vehicles, whether for personal use or in commercial operations such as robo-taxis.