When Uber bought self-driving truck developer Otto for $680 million less than a year ago, the ride-sharing company proclaimed in a blog post that it had created a “dream team.”
Uber hailed the arrival of Otto founder Anthony Levandowski. “Anthony is one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers: his first invention, a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider, is now in the Smithsonian,” Uber gushed. Levandowski had developed autonomous car technology for Alphabet‘s (GOOGL) self-driving car unit, now known as Waymo. “Just as important, Anthony is a prolific entrepreneur with a real sense of urgency.”
The sense of urgency has only increased, though not in the way Uber expected.
Levandowski is at the center of trade secrets litigation that Waymo brought against Uber, accusing the engineer of stealing 14,000 documents on his way out the door when he left to found Otto in January 2016.
Former trophy hire Levandowski has until the end of the month to provide Alphabet’s Waymo with documents that he allegedly downloaded or face termination from Uber, as per a May 15 letter from General Counsel. Judge William Alsup, who is hearing Waymo’s suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, mandated the return of the files.
While the dispute between Waymo and Uber is dramatic and riveting, it is not unique. Augmented reality company Oculus, which Facebook (FB) acquired for $2 billion in 2014, drew similar accusations from Zenimax. Tesla (TSLA) recently sued a former program manager of its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system unit for breach of contract. Complicating matters in Silicon Valley, California does not recognize non-compete clauses that could block employees in other regions from hopping to a rival with prized intellectual property.