Star self-driving car engineer ordered to pay Google $248m, files for bankruptcy

In a photo taken on Aug 27, 2019, former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski leaves the federal court after his arraignment hearing in San Jose, California. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Anthony Levandowski, a former star Google and Uber engineer who helped pioneer self-driving cars, filed for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday after a court ordered him to pay US$179 million (S$248 million) to Google over a contract dispute.

The damages stemmed from an arbitration case between Google and Levandowski. The engineer had for years worked on self-driving cars at Google before leaving to create an autonomous vehicle startup in 2016 and then later joining ride-hailing giant Uber.

An arbitration panel had ruled in December that Levandowski and another colleague, Lior Ron, had engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by secretly poaching away Google colleagues to join the start-up. On Wednesday (March 4), a court confirmed the arbitration panel's decision that Levandowski pay US$179 million to Google.

In his filing for bankruptcy protection, Levandowski said he had US$50 million to US$100 million in personal assets, which would not be enough to pay the damages to Google.

Uber declined to comment, as did Levandowski's lawyer. In a statement, Waymo, the self-driving car company that was spun out of Google, said, "We will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure our confidential information is protected as we build the world's most experienced driver."

The substantial damages and bankruptcy filing are another ignominious chapter for one of Silicon Valley's one-time brightest technologists.

Levandowski had been paid handsomely for his years of work at Google and had a close relationship with Larry Page, a founder and former chief executive of the search giant. But the relationship changed when Levandowski left Google and took some of the company's self-driving talent with him to found Otto, a self-driving truck startup. Levandowski later sold Otto to Uber for more than US$600 million.

His good fortune soon ran out. In 2017, Waymo - the newly christened self-driving company spun out of Google - sued Uber and Levandowski for theft of trade secrets, accusing the two of conspiring to steal years of autonomous vehicle research to bolster Uber's own self-driving program. Uber and Waymo eventually settled, with Uber handing Waymo roughly US$245 million in Uber stock.

But it was not over for Levandowski.

In August, federal prosecutors charged him with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google, a case that is still open.

At the same time, Google pursued its own case against Levandowski for poaching employees, resulting in Wednesday's ruling.

It's unclear if Levandowski will have to pay, given that his employment agreement with Uber stated it indemnified him. In a securities filing this week, Uber left the question open.

"While Uber and Levandowski are parties to an indemnification agreement, whether Uber is ultimately responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute between the company and Levandowski," Uber's filing said.

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