Two weeks ago it seemed as if Uber had hit rock bottom regarding public image and credibility, this week Uber are once again in the news but this time it doesn’t have anything to do with morals and ethics, and more about an individual who is being accused of using Google secrets to further his career with self-driving car competitors.
The individual in question is former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski who has been accused of stealing 14,000 documents from Google and using them to help his own self driving start-up Otto (acquired by Uber in August 2016). During his time with Google Levandowski collected up to 120 million dollars while also working on Otto and it wasn’t until he received the payout that the details of Otto became public.
Waymo (Google’s self driving project) claims that Uber stole trade secrets and used them in order to copy a specific and important piece of autonomous vehicle tech. Waymo puts most of the blame on Mr. Levandowski for taking the confidential information, now Waymo is going to the courts to ban Uber from using anything that resembles a Waymo trade secret. If it is granted, it could halt Uber’s self driving car project for the foreseeable future and give Google a bigger advantage in the driver-less car industry.
On the 6th of April a federal judge in San Francisco called the allegations against Levandowski ‘pretty convincing’ and has allowed an expert from Waymo (Google’s self driving spin off) to examine Uber. U.S. district judge William Alsup stated during the court case that, ‘under oath it’s pretty convincing that Mr. Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents, wiped his computer clean, transferred the files onto a thumb drive and went to start a new company’. New court documents suggest that Levandowski tried to poach Google employees while also helping other self driving start-ups Odin Wave and Tyto Lidar. Levandowski denies any relationship with Odin Wave or Tyto however, in mid-2013 Levandowski helped Google do due diligence in an attempted acquisition of Tyto, which was later acquired by Levandowski’s Otto.
It is obvious that Google had prior worries about any of their employees leaving for rival companies, which explains why Levandowski was receiving such a lucrative amount of money. For fear that other employees would follow suit or be poached by Levandowskis Google admitted to providing extra incentives to higher ups to avoid a repeat scenario. Bloomberg has reported that the increased paychecks and extra incentives is causing an attrition within Google’s self driving car projects. According to Bloomberg, Levandowski had a long standing history with side projects during his time with Google some of which were sanctioned by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
The documents that have been produced to the court have revealed that when Uber first bought Otto in August 2016, the two companies were already anticipating the idea of being sued, Mr. Alsup reacted by saying ‘If it was a legitimate deal, why would they anything to fear?’, Six months after the purchase Waymo took Uber to court.
After further questioning, a recurring theme continued to pop up which stated that Uber and its lawyers have a privilege log with hundreds of pages with emails from Uber about the 680 million dollar purchase of Levandowski’s Otto. Levandowski admitted that there are 42 documents that relate or reference a due diligence report about the Otto acquisition. Furthermore, Levandowski’s lawyers refuse to reveal the identity of the reports author.
On Thursday, Levandowski plead the Fifth amendment in an attempt to keep information about the report a secret. The reasoning behind it is that if Levandowski faces criminal charges, the information could incriminate him, in response Alsup said ‘almost anything could be swept under the rug’. Nothing has been set in stone but is predicted that Alsup will rule against Levandowski and order Uber to produce the documents in question, Alsup has gone so far as to accuse Levandowski’s lawyer Ismail Ramsey of deliberately withholding information and warned him to have his appeal ready for May 6th.
As the case continued Mr. Alsup continued to get frustrated with Mr. Levandowski and his lawyers stating, ‘you are hiding from me what the real facts are… You want me to be in the dark’. In response to Mr. Alsup, Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez gave a brief history of Mr. Levandowski’s career achievements surrounding autonomous vehicles. Gonzalez continued by reciting a detailed story of how Levandowski was in charge of a team that built ‘Ghostrider’, the only motorcycle entered into the national autonomous vehicle races funded by the department of defence in 2005. ‘You know where that motorcycle is today, At the Smithsonian… He did all of this before working for Google’. The story was well told and tried to perceive Mr. Levandowski as the genius he could well be but Mr. Alsup was not so convinced or pleased with the attempt to change topic, in response Mr. Alsup simply stated ‘Then why did he take those 14,000 documents?’
This new scandal comes at the worst time for Uber who have been in the news recently for multiple issues surrounding business ethics. Although the court case at the moment is revolving around Anthony Levandowski and his wrong doings it is obvious that Uber will once again take a major hit in the public eye and popularity may continue to fall in the coming months. Although Levandowski and Uber have stated that they have done nothing wrong and everything they have done for autonomous vehicles was ethical but from previous examples used in this article it is clear that Uber and Levandowski are not acting like someone who is innocent. The final court date is schedule is set for the 6th of May and it seems pretty academic that Uber and Levandowski will be caught in the wrong. However, it will be interesting to see what the outcome will do to affect the future of autonomous vehicles.
Conor McGovern Tech Editor