Uber fires central figure as pressure mounts in Waymo legal fight

31 May 2017

31 May 2017 The head of Uber’s autonomous car programme Anthony Levandowski was dramatically fired on Tuesday after refusing to cooperate in a powerful case brought by Google parent’s Waymo, which accuses him of stealing trade secrets after downloading 14,000 files before leaving the company. If Waymo wins the case – where it claims Uber used Waymo’s trade secrets to jump-start its previously weak driverless car tech – it could severely cripple Uber’s ambitions to become a major player in self-driving car technology. A US judge has already temporarily halted part of Uber’s driverless car programme as of earlier this month. With driverless cars being ultimately much cheaper to run than having a driver in Uber’s future ride-hailing core business, not owning the driverless car tech it uses would result in a pivotal vulnerability in its core business, potentially leaving it dependent on the whim of leaders in the field, including Waymo. Embattled Uber’s general counsel Salle Yoo wrote that Levandowski’s actions had ′impeded Uber’s internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit,’ strengthening Waymo’s ability to win the case. Levandowski asserted the typical American vamoose of invoking the Fifth Amendment, which protects himself personally at the expense of Uber, since it gives him the constitutional right against self-incrimination and not to testify. It is often a legal route taken by someone with something to hide. While Uber bought Levandowski’s company Otto, which he founded after leaving Google, for $680 million (€606 million) in August 2016, Uber also awarded Levandowski shares worth more than $250 million (€222 million), which – critically – are dated the day after Levandowski left Waymo, suggesting Levandowski and Uber were conspiring, and that Otto was merely a front to transfer Waymo trade secrets to Uber. Uber has revealed that Levandowski, however, will no longer receive any of this $250 million, since he was not at Uber long enough to meet the performance targets the awarding of the shares were tied to. The 14,000 files Waymo accuses Levandowski of stealing include files crucial to Waymo’s Lidar laser system, a centrepiece component of its autonomous driving system. Lasers fired from the car bounce off objects, determining the car’s distance from them (by how long they take to come back), which can then be used to build up a map of the car’s surroundings. Another leader in the field is Mobileye. On 12 May, Waymo won a preliminary injunction against Uber from a federal judge that forces Uber to return any stolen documents to Waymo. Uber insists the documents cannot be found on the company’s computer servers, although this does not mean they do not exist anywhere. The situation is further complicated by whether any Waymo tech was used to build any Uber autonomous systems – if this is found out to be the case, it could require Uber to destroy any parts of its systems built on Waymo technology. It will put any contributions made by Levandowski under intense scrutiny, and as head of Uber’s autonomous programme for a significant time, this could be the entire project. The legal fight could not have come at a worse time for Uber, whose reputation as a professional company has been rocked by a raft of scandals that have seen many key executives exodus the company. Last week, Uber was forced to admit it deliberately underpayed tens of millions of dollars in fares to New York City drivers as it battled against fierce competition. It has also transpired that Uber has been operating in US cities illegally, with the US Department of Justice carrying out a criminal investigation against the company for using a software programme called ′Greyball’ which allowed it to hide from city transport enforcement officers. Even worse still, Uber has been heavily criticised for a poor working environment, with a report on the matter due only next week. It is facing allegations of widespread sexual harassment and gender discrimination. No less than Uber’s CEO was also forced to apologise in late February after conducting a verbal attack against an Uber driver caught on film. With so many grievous struggles facing the company, it is hard to see how they are able to hold on to and attract the best talent going forwards, especially necessary in the highly skilled field of autonomous cars. Photograph courtesy of iStock

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