Uber Threatens to Fire Star Engineer in Legal Battle Over Driverless Cars

The letter is the first public sign of a split between Mr. Levandowski and Uber, which to date has not tried to force him to cooperate with the investigation in the case. Mr. Levandowski has been close to Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, who wooed the engineer to join the ride-hailing company and purchased Otto, the start-up Mr. Levandowski formed after leaving Google, for nearly $700 million last year.

Mr. Levandowski, who is not being sued, has remained silent in the case. In March he exercised his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, an effort to avoid what his legal counsel said was the potential for criminal charges.

The letter from Uber orders Mr. Levandowski, who oversees most of Uber’s autonomous vehicle research efforts, to comply with the court’s investigation into the more than 9.7 gigabytes of data Waymo has accused him of stealing, or else face consequences like losing his job. That could include testifying or turning over any Waymo data he may have.

Uber and Waymo are locked in competition as they develop autonomous vehicles, considered by many to be the future of transportation. The outcome of the case may affect who wins or loses in perfecting the technology, which has also attracted other technology companies, automakers, start-ups and components manufacturers.

In recent weeks, Uber has tried to minimize the fallout internally around its self-driving research arm. Mr. Levandowski voluntarily stepped down from reporting directly to Mr. Kalanick, and has recused himself from any decisions made on lidar technology, a crucial component in autonomous vehicles.

That has not been enough. In a court ruling last week, United States District Court Judge William Alsup, of the Northern District of California, who is presiding over the case, barred Mr. Levandowski from any work on lidar and ordered Uber to produce a timeline of the events leading…

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