SAN FRANCISCO — Uber said Tuesday that it had fired Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer brought in to lead the company’s self-driving automobile efforts who was accused of stealing trade secrets when he left a job at Google.
What Mr. Levandowski did when he quit Google to start his own company, Otto, which was acquired by Uber for nearly $700 million last year, is the key question in a closely watched lawsuit that pits one of the world’s most powerful companies against Uber, a richly financed up-and-comer.
The stakes are enormous for both businesses. Google was a pioneer in autonomous car technology and has spent nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars on its effort, which is now run through Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. And Travis Kalanick, Uber’s Chief Executive, has said the future of his ride-hailing company, privately valued at nearly $70 billion, hinges on work being done to create cars that can drive themselves.
The dismissal of one of Uber’s most prized technical talents also points to the risks of the star engineering culture that has emerged in Silicon Valley in recent years, leading to giant paydays for a small group of employees.
That was certainly the case for Mr. Levandowski. Last August, when Uber announced it had bought Otto, Mr. Kalanick described Mr. Levandowski as “one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers,” a prolific entrepreneur with “a real sense of urgency.”
Uber agreed to pay $680 million — mostly in company equity — in exchange for the company’s technology and a team of experienced self-driving technology engineers. Mr. Levandowski and his staff would also be entitled to a small percentage of any profits earned from an Uber-owned, self-driving trucking business developed under Mr. Levandowski’s direction.
But just months after the acquisition, Waymo sued Uber in civil court, claiming that Uber was using trade secrets stolen from Google to develop Uber’s self-driving vehicles — a plan Waymo alleges was aided by Mr. Levandowski.
Uber has denied the accusations. But when Mr. Levandowski was ordered by a federal judge to hand over evidence and testimony, he asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. Uber has pressured Mr. Levandowski to cooperate for months, but after he missed an internal deadline to hand over information, the company fired him.
Uber had little choice but to cut ties with Mr. Levandowski, Legal Analysts said. The company risked being tarnished if it continued to stand by him, as if it were indirectly condoning his actions.
“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 were to claim, 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.