Trump Pardons Ex-Google, Uber Engineer Anthony Levandowski for Self-Driving Tech Theft

Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in prison but avoided serving any time as the pandemic delayed his start date.

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Waymo / AP Images

Having never seen a day of prison time after being convicted for stealing trade secrets from his former employer, Waymo, engineer Anthony Levandowski has been pardoned by now-former President Donald Trump, along with a slew of others. 

In a case that California federal Judge William Alsup described as the “biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen,” Levandowski pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets and was convicted to 18 months of prison after—in a nutshell—downloading thousands of proprietary Waymo files to his laptop before leaving the company and using this information to start his own self-driving truck company, known as Otto.

AP Images

He later sold that business to Uber, but when Google—Waymo's parent company—figured out what had happened, they sued Levandowski for $178 million, a sum which the engineer claims Uber is legally liable to pay, not himself. This has led to another lawsuit between Uber and Levandowski. The convicted engineer has not seen a day of prison due to the ongoing pandemic which delayed the start of his sentence indefinitely, but while he may not be seeing prison time, the nine-figure lawsuit he's embroiled in isn't going anywhere.

Levandowski and his legal troubles were symbolic of a certain era in the automotive and tech sectors a few years ago when self-driving cars were billed as the inevitable and immediate future—a technology so highly sought-after that it was thought to change transportation forever. Though cars have gotten better at autonomy since, that largely has not been the case. And Uber's hopes for self-driving appear to have ended for now, with a sale of its division to Aurora Innovations late last year. 

Moreover, Levandowski's promise as an engineer seemed to give him a pass for his abrasive style: he was once quoted by the New Yorker as saying, "The only thing that matters is the future... I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

The White House said the pardon was supported by others in the tech industry, including controversial Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Thiel Capital COO Blake Masters and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. Thiel was an early and avid supporter of Trump, LA Mag notes, donating $1.25 million to his first campaign, but that support apparently waned in his search for a second term.

Even without spending any time behind bars, being caught up legally with the likes of Google and Uber is not a good place to be. It would take more than a pardon to solve those problems.

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