Uber and Waymo have been tangled in a legal dispute over self-driving car technology and the engineer who started the feud could soon lose his job.
For those unfamiliar with the whole matter, Anthony Levandowski is an engineer who worked at Google at one point, then left the company to co-found a startup called Otto, which Uber later acquired for nearly $700 million.
Levandowksi became Uber's star engineer for driverless car tech, but it seems that he didn't leave Google empty-handed. As Google's Waymo alleges in the lawsuit, on his way out Levandowski stole thousands of confidential documents related to self-driving car technology.
Uber Top Lawyer Threatens To Fire Levandowski
Waymo did not sue Levandowski, but took Uber to court accusing the company of conspiring with the engineer to steal trade secrets for self-driving car designs.
The lawsuit between Waymo and Uber had several twists so far and in the latest dramatic turn, Uber's top lawyer threatened to fire Levandowski if he fails to comply with the court's requests.
Back in March, Levandowski tried to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in an attempt to avoid facing criminal charges, but the court denied his request.
In the latest twist, Uber's top lawyer sent a letter to Levandowski advising him to comply with the court's investigation into the nearly 10 GB of data Waymo says he stole, or face "adverse employment action." The consequence could include losing his position at Uber. The cooperation, meanwhile, could include testifying or submitting any Waymo data that may be in his possession.
In a recent court filing, Levandowski argued that the order that U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued on May 11 was an incredibly heavy burden, as it virtually left him in an impossible dilemma. Levandowski's lawyer, Miles Ehrlich, said the order forces the engineer to choose between his job and his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, and should be amended.
"Anything short of firing Mr. Levandowski to get him to waive his Fifth Amendment rights and attorney-client privileges would put Uber at risk of contempt, since it would fail to measure up to the Court's command that Uber exercise every lawful power it has over Mr. Levandowski," Ehrlich argued.
Judge Alsup referred the case to federal prosecutors to investigate the claims Waymo made, and Uber could face criminal prosecution if found to have a fault in the matter.
Comply, Or Else
In the May 18 letter to Levandowski, Uber General Counsel Salle Yoo highlighted that Uber is still confident that it didn't use any Waymo trade secrets in developing its own autonomous driving technology, and it's confident that it will be able to prove it eventually.
"Until then, we insist that you do everything in your power to assist us in complying with the order," Yoo added.
Uber already demoted Levandowski back in April, but the engineer remained with the company although he's no longer in charge of Uber's self-driving car unit. Should he fail to comply, termination of employment is likely the next step Uber will take in this matter.
Waymo and Uber have been racing to develop self-driving cars and the verdict in this lawsuit could have a big say on which one of them can perfect the technology first.