Late last month, Uber announced it had fired Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer brought in to lead the Uber self-driving automobile efforts. Levandowski is accused of stealing trade secrets from his prior employer, Google and has been in the spotlight as we watch a clash of titans.
Levandowski left Google to start his own company, Otto, which was later acquired by Uber for nearly $700 million last year, now the subject of one of the most closely watched lawsuits in
Silicon valley, pitting Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies, against Uber, a richly financed disruptive force in the technology world.
The stakes are high, not just for Levandowski and Uber, but also for Google, a pioneer in autonomous car technology, having spent nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars on their self driving car effort, now branded as Waymo.
Uber, valued at $70 billion, believes the future of their company hinges on their self driving car efforts.
The firing of Levandowski doesn’t just call Uber’s future into question, but also casts doubt on the entire “star engineer” culture of Silicon Valley, where supposed prized talent can fetch high dollars for a relatively small candidate pool (Uber paid $680,000,000 mostly in company equity, for Otto’s technology and the engineers behind the product, including Levandowski). Levandowski was also entitled to receive a percentage of profits earned from a self-driving trucking business that Uber is building.
But, just months after the acquisition, Waymo sued Uber in civil court, claiming that Uber was using trade secrets stolen from Google, aided by Levandowski.
Uber has denied such allegations, and Levandowski has asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self incrimination. After months of attempting to pressure Levandowski into cooperating with Waymo, Uber decided to fire Levandowski.
“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently. Over that same period, Uber has urged Anthony to fully cooperate in helping the court get the facts and ultimately helping to prove our case. We take our obligations under the court very seriously, and so we have chosen to terminate his employment at Uber.” Said Angela L. Padilla, associate general counsel for employment and litigation at Uber.
While I cannot state why Uber has decided to let Levandowski go, what is eminently clear is that Uber’s decision is likely to put a real damper on Uber’s plan to develop the self-driving car or truck. The debate rages hotly as to whether self-driving cars are going to reduce auto accidents and injuries on a national level, and whether companies who manufacture self-driving cars should enjoy immunity from lawsuits for injuries and even wrongful deaths caused by driverless cars or trucks. Some argue that because driver error is the number one cause of vehicular injury and death, then self-driving vehicles will all but eliminate injuries caused by negligent drivers. While this idea may seem appealing to some, I abhor any immunity granted to anyone or any company or any entity, because if a party negligently harms another, that negligent party should pay, not the injured party. I would greatly like to know what you think, and welcome your comments.
Claude A. Wyle is a partner of Choulos Choulos, and Wyle, a San Francisco based law firm dedicated to representing clients who have been injured by the wrongful conduct of individuals, corporations, public entities, and businesses. Mr. Wyle also frequently sits as a Judge Pro Tem for the city and county of San Francisco.