SAN FRANCISCO — An Uber executive accused of stealing driverless car technology from his former employers at Google is exercising his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, according to his lawyers.
The lawyers for Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Google’s self-driving car project who is now leading a similar effort at Uber, said he was broadly asserting his Fifth Amendment rights because there was “potential for criminal action” in the case, according to court transcripts obtained on Thursday.
The legal maneuver adds even more intrigue to the high-profile fight between two of the technology industry’s largest companies, which are squaring off in the race to put driverless cars on the road.
Mr. Levandowski is at the center of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, which was spun out from Google to become its own Alphabet subsidiary. Waymo has accused Mr. Levandowski of stealing documents and poaching employees before quitting Google and then colluding with Uber to use that technology to advance driverless car efforts at the ride-hailing service.
Shortly after leaving Google, Mr. Levandowski started his own self-driving truck start-up, Otto. Six months after Otto was formed, Uber acquired the company for $680 million. Waymo filed a motion seeking a temporary injunction this month to stop Uber’s autonomous vehicle development.
As part of the motion seeking the injunction, Waymo said that Mr. Levandowski, while still working at Google, installed software that allowed him to download over 14,000 files, or about 9.7 gigabytes of data, pertaining to the driverless car program. Uber was ordered to hand over those files.
In the transcript of a private hearing before Judge William Alsup in United States District Court in San Francisco, Mr. Levandowski’s lawyers said he was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination in not turning over documents that may pertain to the case. Arturo Gonzalez, one of Uber’s lawyers, said they have made clear to Mr. Levandowski that he needs to release any documents relevant to the case as part of discovery. “We obviously have a conflict,” he said.
Miles Ehrlich, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Levandowski, said the Uber executive was asserting his Fifth Amendment rights to protect against “compelled disclosure that would identify the existence, location or possession of any responsive documents.” He also said that Mr. Levandowski’s decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment may change as they examine the case.
The situation raises questions about the future of Mr. Levandowski at the company. When Uber’s lawyer told the court that the company could not force him to testify, Judge Alsup said Uber had the right to order him to cooperate or be fired.
Without arguing about whether or not Mr. Levandowski stole documents, Uber’s lawyer said the company intended to prove that its driverless car technology was not stolen from Waymo.
“The more we get into this, it might look like a public relations disaster for Uber,” said Michael Carrier, a law professor at Rutgers University. “The mere fact that you’re pleading the Fifth doesn’t look good.”
The acquisition of Otto and the hiring of Mr. Levandowski was critical for Uber. It is betting that autonomous cars are essential to its future, allowing it to run a fleet of cars around the clock without having to pay drivers.
Angela Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel, said in a statement that the company plans to publicly lay out its case on April 7. “We are very confident that Waymo’s claims against Uber are baseless and that Anthony Levandowski has not used any files from Google in his work with Otto or Uber,” she said. A Waymo spokesman declined to comment.
Uber’s lawyers tried to keep the hearing confidential, arguing that it could harm Mr. Levandowski’s reputation. Judge Alsup dismissed that argument.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the transcript after Uber sent an email to employees warning of possible negative coverage in the news media over the expected release of a document from the trial.