Uber Fires Driverless-Car Executive at the Center of Google Legal Battle

By Jack Nicas Features Dow Jones Newswires

Uber Technologies Inc. said Tuesday it fired Anthony Levandowski, the driverless-car executive at the center of its legal battle with Google parent Alphabet Inc., making good on its threat to dismiss him if he didn't cooperate with court orders.

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Alphabet has accused Uber of conspiring with Mr. Levandowski to steal its trade secrets while Mr. Levandowski helped lead Alphabet's driverless-car program. He joined Uber as the head of its driverless-car program last year after selling his startup to Uber for $680 million.

Now Uber is cutting ties with Mr. Levandowski after being stymied in its efforts to block Alphabet's lawsuit and the case moves toward an October trial. A federal judge recently ordered Uber to return files that Mr. Levandowski allegedly stole and produce numerous other documents related to the case. Uber has denied the accusations.

An Uber spokeswoman said the company fired Mr. Levandowski when he missed a deadline Uber set for him to turn over documents and after pressing him to assist its internal investigation for months.

Mr. Levandowski and his lawyers didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Levandowski, who isn't a party in the lawsuit, has repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in the case. His attorneys initially said Mr. Levandowski wouldn't comment on the case because of the potential for criminal charges. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has since recommended that Justice Department officials investigate the accusations against Mr. Levandowski and Uber.

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Earlier this month, Judge Alsup ordered Uber to produce a detailed accounting of any contact its employees had with the 14,000 files Mr. Levandowski allegedly stole from Alphabet, as well as any relevant oral or written communications from Mr. Levandowski. Judge Alsup encouraged Uber to use all necessary means to force Mr. Levandowski to comply. "Uber has no excuse under the Fifth Amendment to pull any punches as to Levandowski," he wrote.

In a letter dated May 15, Uber told Mr. Levandowski it would fire him if he didn't comply with the order.

Mr. Levandowski's attorneys have argued in court filings that the judge's order violated his constitutional right protecting him from self-incrimination. In a court filing on Tuesday, his attorneys said the judge's order placed "Mr. Levandowski on the horns of an unconstitutional dilemma: either he must waive his Fifth Amendment rights ... or face immediate firing."

Uber's dismissal of Mr. Levandowski further undermines its high-profile acquisition last year of his driverless-truck startup, Ottomotto LLC. Many observers saw Otto's technology as a key reason for the acquisition, but Uber has said little, if any, of Otto's technology has made it into its self-driving car program.

It is unclear how much of the $680 million in stock Uber will ultimately have to pay for Otto, as much of the price appeared to be tied to technical milestones. An Uber spokesman said earlier this month that none of Mr. Levandowski's 5.3 million Uber shares, or more than $250 million, had yet vested because milestones hadn't been met.

Uber in April removed Mr. Levandowski from its driverless-car program. Several weeks later, the judge formally barred him from working on the program.

Alphabet has separately filed two arbitration claims against Mr. Levandowski, which accuse him of launching competing startups while at Google and attempting to poach its employees for Otto. A Wall Street Journal investigation found Mr. Levandowski ran side businesses throughout his nine years at Google, including some that sold technology to Google. Google eventually bought one of the startups for roughly $20 million.

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 30, 2017 17:35 ET (21:35 GMT)