“I don’t think this was an easy decision, but at the end of the day, Uber did what it had to do,” said Elizabeth A. Rowe, a professor at the University of Florida’s law school and an expert in trade secrets law.
Firing Mr. Levandowski provides Uber “a way to cut off liabilities potentially and highlights that they were not acting willfully,” said Russell Beck, an intellectual property lawyer and founding partner at the Boston law firm Beck Reed Riden.
But firing Mr. Levandowski could mean that he becomes a witness against Uber if he claims, for example, that Uber executives looked the other way while he used proprietary information from Waymo to advance Uber’s self-driving car efforts. Uber has repeatedly said that it has developed its autonomous car technology on its own.
“It makes it easier for Mr. Levandowski to cut a deal, because he’s no longer associated with Uber,” Ms. Rowe said.
More grave for Mr. Levandowski are potential criminal charges. Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the Waymo versus Uber civil case, referred the matter to the United States attorney’s office for possible theft of trade secrets. The action opened Mr. Levandowski — and potentially Uber — to the possibility of criminal charges if the Justice Department decides to pursue the case.
Miles Ehrlich, a lawyer for Mr. Levandowski, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. Court transcripts show Mr. Levandowski’s lawyers have advised him to assert his Fifth Amendment right.
Engineers like Mr. Levandowski are part of a small pool in Silicon Valley with the specialized know-how to lead efforts on self-driving cars. Technology companies and traditional automakers alike are sometimes paying tens of millions of dollars per employee.
Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Google’s self-driving car project who now leads the teaching start-up Udacity, said last year that the going rate for driverless car engineering talent was about $10 million a person. Ford Motor Company will spend $1 billion over the next five years on Argo AI, its artificial intelligence effort focused heavily on building self-driving car software.
As competition for that pool of talent has intensified, employers have become litigious. In January, Tesla sued Sterling Anderson — the former head of its Autopilot self-driving software division — claiming theft of confidential information and poaching Tesla employees to join his own autonomous vehicle start-up, Aurora Innovation. The two companies settled the suit in April.
Mr. Levandowski, however, may not see his rich payday from Uber. He has been employed at Uber for less than a year and none of his shares have vested, according to a person familiar with the terms of the agreement, nor has he met certain project milestones determined at the time of acquisition. Typically, shares in Uber reach vested status over a multiyear period.
Uber will also face hardship as a result of the dismissal. Mr. Levandowski has dedicated his entire professional life to the study and development of robotics and self-driving research, and was integral to nearly every component of the company’s autonomous operations.
Eric Meyhofer, a former deputy of Mr. Levandowski, will lead the autonomous vehicle project, overseeing hundreds of engineers working in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and soon in Toronto.
Uber has had its share of difficulties in recent months. Last week, the company said it had miscalculated the amount it had been paying drivers in New York, an error that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars.
Uber has also seen a string of executive departures, including Jeff Jones, president of the company’s ride-sharing operations, and Amit Singhal, the senior vice president for engineering, who left after accusations of sexual harassment while working at Google were unearthed shortly after he started at Uber.
This week, Josh Mohrer, a general manager at Uber who had been embroiled in controversy, left to join a venture firm. And the results of an investigation into Uber’s companywide culture are expected to be delivered to the company’s board of directors on Wednesday.