A Lawsuit Against Uber Highlights the Rush to Conquer Driverless Cars - The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Late last year, Uber, in defiance of California state regulators, went ahead with a self-driving car experiment on the streets of San Francisco under the leadership of Anthony Levandowski, a new company executive.
The experiment quickly ran into problems. In one case, an autonomous Volvo zoomed through a red light on a busy street in front of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.
Uber, a ride-hailing service, said the incident was because of human error. “This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” Chelsea Kohler, a company spokeswoman, said in December.
But even though Uber said it had suspended an employee riding in the Volvo, the self-driving car was, in fact, driving itself when it barreled through the red light, according to two Uber employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the company, and internal Uber documents viewed by The New York Times. All told, the mapping programs used by Uber’s cars failed to recognize six traffic lights in the San Francisco area. “In this case, the car went through a red light,” the documents said.
The legal battle also provides a rare glimpse into the high-stakes world of top technology talent, where star engineers like Mr. Levandowski, who played a central role in Google’s pioneering autonomous car project, command huge sums of money to try to help define a company’s technological future.
After leaving Google in January 2016, Mr. Levandowski formed the self-driving truck company Otto. About six months later, Uber bought Otto for $680 million, and Mr. Levandowski became Uber’s vice president in charge of its self-driving car project.
Waymo filed a lawsuit on Thursday in federal court against Uber and Otto, accusing Mr. Levandowski and Uber of planning to steal trade secrets.
Engineers like Mr. Levandowski are part of a limited pool of people with the experience and capability to lead efforts on self-driving cars. They are wooed by traditional automakers looking to acquire new technical talent and tech companies, both established firms and start-ups, who see the opportunity to use artificial intelligence and sensors to disrupt another industry.
“What’s in these people’s heads is hugely in demand,” because the talent pool “just doesn’t have enough miles under the wheels,” said Martha Josephson, a partner in the Palo Alto, Calif., office of Egon Zehnder, an executive recruiting firm.
In fact, Sebastian Thrun, who founded Google’s self-driving car project and is now the chief executive of the online teaching start-up Udacity, said last year that the going rate for driverless car engineering talent was about $10 million a person.
Current and former co-workers of Mr. Levandowski, who asked for anonymity because they did not have permission to speak to reporters, said he was aggressive and determined with an entrepreneurial streak.
Since leaving Google, Mr. Levandowski, 36, has embodied the Silicon Valley ethos that it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
Mr. Levandowski gained some notoriety within Google for selling start-ups, which he had done as side projects, to his employer. In his biography for a real estate firm, for which he is a board member, Mr. Levandowski said he sold three automation and robotics start-ups to Google, including 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots, for nearly $500 million. After this story was published, the real estate firm updated its website erasing Mr. Levandowski’s biography and said that it had “erroneously reported certain facts incorrectly without Mr. Levandowski’s knowledge.”