An ex-Google employee and self-driving car pioneer has been charged with stealing secrets from the tech giant just before joining rival Uber.

The US Department of Justice has filed criminal charges accusing former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski of stealing trade secrets from the company before he left to join Uber to work on its own self-driving car efforts.

The race to develop autonomous vehicles and roll these out the public is becoming increasingly competitive, with companies like Uber relying on the technology to combat growing losses and avoid having to pay human drivers.

Google has been leading the way in the space, spinning off its self-driving technology development company Waymo in late 2016.

The 33-count indictment follows a civil case between Waymo and Uber over the same allegations.

The civil case was eventually settled, with Waymo receiving 0.34 percent of Uber equity- about $US244.8 million at the time.

Levandowski, widely regarded as a pioneer in self-driving vehicles, is accused of stealing 14,000 documents containing information on Google’s robotic car efforts in late 2015 and early 2016, while he was still working at the company.

Soon after he allegedly did this, Levandowski left the company to launch his own autonomous vehicle business – Otto – which was quickly acquired by Uber for $US680 million in 2016.

Levandowski has denied he stole any trade secrets from Google, and Uber has denied any knowledge of the documents, which allegedly contained information on circuit board drawings, internal project-tracking documents and instructions for installing and testing lidar, a sensor used in self-driving vehicles.

After the civil case was settled, the federal judge overseeing it undertook the rare move of opening a criminal probe into the matter, claiming there is enough evidence to conclude that theft occurred.

Through a statement by his lawyer, Levandowski has maintained his innocence.

Anthony Levandowski. Source: LinkedIn

“He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” the lawyer said. “This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago.

“The downloads issue occurred while Anthony was still working at Google – when he and his team were authorised to use the information. None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company.”

Levandowski has pled not guilty to all of the charges, and has been released on a $US2 million bond. He will have to wear an ankle monitor until his next court appearance, scheduled for next week.

He has also stepped down as CEO from his latest startup, Pronto AI, which is working on a driver assistance product for trucks.

US attorney David Anderson said that while Americans are always free to change jobs, they can’t steal valuable IP from their former companies.

“What we cannot do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door,” Anderson said. “Theft is not innovation.”

While the world of startups moves so quickly, with individuals often poached from other companies, normal laws still apply, FBI special agent in charge John Bennett said.

“Silicon Valley is not the Wild West,” Bennett said. “The fast pace and competitive environment does not mean federal laws don’t apply or they can be ignored.”

During the civil case, Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick admitted that the company needed to win the robotic vehicle race to survive, but denied that it had stolen any trade secrets from Google.

It was revealed that Levandowski had begun talks with Uber in 2015 before he had left Google. Waymo was spun out of Google the following year.

Uber has consistently denied any knowledge of the allegedly stolen documents, but eventually fired Levandowski after he repeatedly used his right against self-incrimination in the lead-up to the first trial.