One of Uber's star engineers is accused of stealing more than 14,000 documents from Google's self-driving-car unit.
Uber is threatening to fire the engineer at the centre of its legal battle with Alphabet's self-driving-car firm Waymo unless he hands over documents from his previous employer.
Anthony Levandowski previously worked at Waymo, which is owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet, to help develop autonomous vehicle tech. But he subsequently left to create his own self-driving-truck startup, Otto, which Uber acquired for $680 million.
Alphabet and Waymo have accused Uber and Otto of stealing Waymo's trade secrets and intellectual property and of infringing on patents related to lidar, a technology that autonomous vehicles use to "see."
Uber denies the allegations.
Waymo is accusing Levandowski of downloading more than 14,000 files while working for the company in 2015 and taking them with him. But Levandowski is refusing to let the devices that might contain the files be searched, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Uber has already demoted Levandowski and removed him from any work involving lidar systems at Uber. But after receiving a court order to return any documents taken from Waymo, Uber is threatening to fire Levandowski if he does not cooperate.
"We understand that this letter requires you to turn over information wherever located, including but not limited to, your personal devices, and to waive any Fifth Amendment protection you may have," Uber's general counsel, Salle Yoo, wrote in a letter on Monday that was made public in a court filing Thursday. "While we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the Court's Order requires us to make these demands of you."
She went on: "If you do not agree to comply with all of the requirements set forth herein, or if you fail to comply in a material manner, then Uber will take adverse employment action against you, which may include termination of your employment and such termination would be for Cause."
But Levandowski's lawyers say the demand is unconstitutional.
They wrote that court order forcing Uber to make the demand of him was "an act by the judicial branch of our federal government compelling an individual to choose between preserving his livelihood and preserving his constitutional rights." They continued: "Nearly fifty years of Supreme Court precedent forbid the government from putting an individual to such an unconstitutionally coercive choice."
An Uber representative did not immediately comment when contacted by Business Insider.
Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the trial, has also previously referred the case to the US attorney's office for a potential criminal investigation.
The case comes at a critical time for Uber. The ride-hailing company is reeling from multiple scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment at the company, and numerous high-level executives have left in recent months. CEO Travis Kalanick is pinning the future of his company on its self-driving-car unit, and he has said failing to be first to develop the tech could pose an existential threat to Uber.
"If we are not tied for first, then the person who is in first, or the entity that's in first, then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher-quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing," he said.