Only as strong as your weakest link
The fierce competition between Waymo and Uber just witnessed a new Game of Thrones-esque twist. On Tuesday, Uber fired Anthony Levandowski, a vice president of Technology in the company.
Anthony Levandowski, a brief history
Levandowski was recently in the news for being the engineer accused of stealing trade secrets regarding self-driving automobiles when he left Waymo. After Levandowski quit working at Waymo, he then started his own company called Otto.
Things got complicated when Uber acquired Otto last year for $680 million.
Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, sued Uber in civil court a few months after the Otto acquisition accusing Levandowski of stealing confidential information—9.7 gigabytes of data— and taking it directly to a competitor.
The lawsuit between the two tech giants, now in court, has very high stakes.
Uber’s future depends on the case’s outcome
Google has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars for nearly a decade to dominate the autonomous car technology market.
Meanwhile,Uber’s future is squarely hedged on creating cars that can drive themselves.
Uber’s latest firing may indicate the company’s unwillingness to participate in a drawn-out lawsuit and further controversies, despite the risk of suffering setbacks in their ability to bring self-automated cars to the market.
In March, Mr. Levandowski, who is not being sued personally by Waymo, claimed his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when a federal judge ordered him to hand over evidence and testimony relating to the accusations.
That was unexpected
Reports indicate that Uber urged Levandowski’s cooperation, but felt frustrated by his intransigence and obfuscation from then onwards. A split developed. Levandowski stopped reporting to the CEO, and recused himself from decisions regarding lidar technology, at the heart of self-automation. Soon afterwards, California District Judge William Alsupi legally barred Levandowski from any work on lidar.
The Court also ordered Uber to produce painstaking details about Levandowski’s hiring, and to return any stolen data.
Uber faced an inescapable reality. It could not use its biggest techie’s knowledge on the very thing he was hired to perform.
Earlier this month, an Uber lawyer warned Levandowski of “adverse employment action”, stating “while we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the court’s order requires us to make these demands of you,” adding “We insist that you do everything in your power to assist us in complying with the order.”
Not long ago Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick described Mr. Levandowski as “one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers” when he wooed the whole team of tech engineers at Otto into Uber’s fold.
A year later, his company was forced to fire their star engineer for missing an internal company deadline to turn over information regarding the Waymo lawsuit.
Some may see this as the self-automation wizard’s self-destruction. On the other hand, perhaps it is a calculated risk to avoid personal criminal charges, given his alleged culpability.