Lots of people get fired from Uber. One employee was reportedly fired last year for helping his female coworkers raise complaints about sexual harassment. Drivers get deactivated from the platform if their ratings slip below a certain number (Uber says the minimum rating varies by city, but driver forums say dipping below a 4.6 out of 5 is enough for deactivation). Even executives sometimes get axed — Uber senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal was asked to resign after sexual harassment allegations against him at a former job became public.
But Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of stealing confidential files from Google’s self-driving car unit and using them to develop similar technology at Uber, still has a job.
That might change soon — Uber’s general counsel in the U.S. Salle Yoo warned Levandowski in a letter sent Monday and made public last night that, if he didn’t return the stolen files or openly deny taking them, he could be fired. The letter is a result of an American court order issued Monday, and Levandowski has until the end of the month to comply.
At Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, Levandowski led efforts to develop lidar systems that use lasers to give cars the ability to self-navigate. He abruptly resigned from Waymo in January 2016 and launched an autonomous trucking company, Otto, which Uber acquired in August that year. Waymo sued Uber in February 2017, claiming trade secret theft and patent infringement.
Levandowski has stubbornly refused to answer any questions from Waymo’s lawyers about the case, broadly invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, something the United States Constitution grants him. The case has been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and, if Levandowski complies with Uber’s request to return Waymo’s documents, it could trigger a criminal investigation.
“We understand that this letter requires you to turn over information wherever located, including but not limited to, your personal devices, and to waive any Fifth Amendment protection you may have,” Yoo wrote. “While we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the Court’s Order requires us to make these demands of you.”
Uber declined to comment beyond what’s already in the letter. Gizmodo contacted a Waymo spokesperson for comment and will update when we hear back.
Despite the allegations against him, Levandowski’s job at Uber has been protected so far by his reputation as a rising star in the self-driving industry and his close friendship with CEO Travis Kalanick, who called Levandowski his brother from another mother.
However, Yoo’s letter hints that the tide at Uber may be turning against Levandowski — in addition to demanding he return Waymo’s documents, Yoo also asks Levandowski to return any Uber files he may have and to only use Uber-issued devices for work, where his actions will be monitored.
“If you have not fully complied with our prior request to return all Uber-owned documents in your possession, custody, or control, you must immediately return all such documents to us,” Yoo wrote.
Levandowski’s continued employment at Uber has been a source of frustration for the judge presiding over Waymo’s lawsuit, who has suggested several times to Uber’s lawyers that Levandowski should be fired for pleading the Fifth instead of cooperating with the investigation. By requiring Uber to demand the return of the documents, the judge is pressuring Uber to finally fire him. By the end of the month, we’ll know whether Levandowski decided to keep his job or his silence.
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