Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, the former head of its self-driving car project. Levandowski came to Uber after a long stint at Google, where he shepherded that company’s own self-driving car program before it was spun off into a standalone business called Waymo. Earlier this year, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging that Levandowski stole some 14,000 documents from Waymo, and that the information became the technological basis for Uber’s self-driving cars. The news was first reported by The New York Times.
Levandowski had already stepped away from running Uber’s self-driving car project, with the company moving him to an operations role in late April. Uber has denied the allegations against Levandowski, and in the meantime has been trying to prove in court that it developed its own self-driving technology independently. Levandowski’s refusal to cooperate with those efforts was the reason for his firing, according to his termination letter, which you can see below.
Uber gave Levandowski a timeline for complying with the company’s own internal investigation into the matter, and his position was terminated after he missed that deadline, according to an Uber executive familiar with the matter. Employees who reported to Levandowski will now report to Eric Meyhofer, who took over Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group last month.
Uber brought Levandowski on board in August 2016 when it acquired Otto, a self-driving long-haul trucking company that he started after leaving Google with employees from Tesla, Apple, and Cruise Automation. Levandowski was immediately tapped to run all of Uber’s self-driving efforts, which began in Pittsburgh in 2014 after Uber poached dozens of researchers and engineers from Carnegie Mellon University. It was reportedly Levandowski’s decision to rapidly expand those efforts into San Francisco at the end of 2016. But after just a week of driving, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registrations of Uber’s self-driving SUVs because the company failed to obtain the proper testing permits.
Levandowski is at the center of a major legal battle between Waymo and Uber
Then, this past February, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber and Otto. The suit claims that, six weeks before he left Google, he downloaded around 14,000 files from his company-issued computer. Those files contained trade secrets related to Waymo’s LIDAR technology, circuit board designs, and testing documentation, according to Waymo. The company also alleges that Levandowski tried to remove traces of those actions by reformatting his laptop.
The suit goes on to claim that Levandowski used that information to build up Uber’s self-driving car program. “Otto and Uber are currently building and deploying (or intending to deploy) LiDAR systems (or system components) using Waymo’s trade secret designs,” the company claims in the lawsuit. Waymo also claims that Levandowski “told colleagues that he had plans to ‘replicate’ Waymo’s technology at a competitor.”
During trial proceedings, Waymo’s lawyers took this a step further, accusing Otto of being a shell company created by Levandowski in order to move the allegedly stolen information.
Uber argued that a clause in its contract with Levandowski required that the dispute be settled in arbitration. But the US District Court Judge presiding over the case denied Uber’s request, and instead referred the case to the US Attorney.
Update 5/30, 6:23PMET: Added information from Uber as well as a copy of Levandowski’s termination letter.