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Uber is just too underhanded to play the underdog against Waymo

Uber is just too underhanded to play the underdog against Waymo


Waymo v. Uber, day 3

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Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

The most remarkable thing about Waymo v. Uber is that so many of the people following the case are essentially rooting for Google to crush a smaller firm with a lawsuit. It’s a tale as old as time: a maverick upstart galls a bigger, more established competitor, and the bigger guy strikes back in the courts. It’s practically an American fairy tale, and yet Uber’s lawyers are hard-pressed to get this archetypal narrative to stick. Nobody sees Uber as the underdog.

For one thing, through a collision of multiple scandals, Uber has become extraordinarily unpopular, and the discovery process in this lawsuit hasn’t done much to alleviate its reputation as an unethical, underhanded company. But the other part is that the supposed maverick upstart hasn’t managed to get one over the complacent megacorporation.

True, Google was furious with Uber’s acquisition of Ottomotto. Travis Kalanick testified today that Larry Page was “super unpumped” about the acquisition, called him “angsty” and “upset.”

Internal emails at Google suggested that even before Levandowski left, Page was worried that he was going to lose him to a competitor.

Larry Page was “super unpumped”

Ottomotto co-founder Lior Ron testified that the Uber acquisition wasn’t a done deal when they left Google. Ottomotto was playing the field — entertaining negotiations with Lyft and even Larry Page at Google. “I am super pumped about negotiating this deal with LP [Larry Page] and JK [John Krafcik],” Levandowski texted Ron on January 23rd.

“We need to have hard terms from [Travis Kalanick],” Ron texted him at one point. “Or else we destroy him,” Levandowski replied.

Trial exhibit.
Trial exhibit.

Meanwhile, Levandowski and Kalanick were becoming bosom buddies over text message, sending each other the kinds of cryptic messages that only friends write.

“1. Burn the village,” Kalanick wrote him in March. “Yup,” Levandowski replied. Kalanick did not recall what any of that meant.

“I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is first looser [sic],” Levandowski texted him. “Agreed,” Kalanick texted back, 15 seconds later.

Later in March, Levandowski texted Kalanick a winking face emoticon and a link to a YouTube video of Michael Douglas’ “Greed is Good” speech from Wall Street (1987) — a clip that Waymo was allowed to play to the jury. Kalanick said he didn’t remember if he had clicked on the link but said he probably would have. At the very least, he said, he was aware of the clip and had likely seen the movie at some point.

Uber clearly believed that the acquisition would vault it forward in the race for self-driving cars by several years — according to Uber meeting notes, Kalanick thought that just rubbing shoulders with Levandowski and his team was going to shave a whole year off the process. Presumably, Kalanick believed that Levandowski emanated the kind of genius that can be transmitted through osmosis.

But for all the supposed unfair competition, things didn’t quite work out for Uber. Waymo put Nina Qi, the former head of corporate development at Uber, on the stand so they could show a report where she calculated Ottomotto’s potential value to the company, in a chart that used the scale of millions of dollars.

Nina Qi’s analysis of the Ottomotto acquisition for Uber, from Waymo’s opening slides.
Nina Qi’s analysis of the Ottomotto acquisition for Uber, from Waymo’s opening slides.

It’s an important part of Waymo’s case because it has so little to go on for damages, mainly because Uber hasn’t put out any self-driving cars yet. Qi’s analysis had projected 295,000 fully autonomous trips in 2017. How many did Uber actually make in 2017?

“Based on my knowledge, none,” said Qi.

Combine that with Lior Ron’s testimony about missed benchmarks: he ended up making $20,000 on the Ottomotto deal, which, if benchmarks had been met, would have been worth millions and millions. Ottomotto, it seems, did not live up to the hype.

This thread of Uber’s story is fascinating when placed up against its narrative that Waymo is slow, encumbered, stagnant, paralyzed by brain drain. In January 2016, Anthony Levandowski went over the head of his boss John Krafcik by directly emailing Larry Page.

“Chauffeur is broken,” Levandowski wrote. “We’re loosing [sic] our tech advantage fast.”

He urged for the project to move faster — he implied the project was mired in a dead end, inventing new things that “are not needed.” Presumably the “new things” were safety measures for the self-driving cars at the heart of this case.  

“We don’t need redundant brakes & steering, or a fancy new car, we need better software,” says Levandowski’s email. “To get to that better software faster we should deploy the first 1000 cars asap. I don’t understand why we are not doing that.”

Shortly after, Levandowski quit, cofounded Ottomotto with Lior Ron, and was, some months later, acquired by Uber. Travis Kalanick — who acknowledged on the stand today that he had on multiple occasions called Levandowski a “brother from another mother” — shared his love of moving fast and breaking things. But breaking things isn’t the same thing as achieving results.

Waymo isn’t quite striking back at a plucky would-be competitor. In fact, it’s starting to look like Waymo is dropkicking a corpse.

“We hired Anthony because we felt he was incredibly visionary, a very good technologist, and he was also very charming,” said Kalanick.

“How do you feel about him now?” asked counsel for Uber.

“Look. this has been a difficult process. He had some…” Kalanick paused. “This makes it not as great as what we thought at the beginning.”

Waymo is dropkicking a corpse

Kalanick performed well on the stand, showing what read as genuine emotion when asked about the founding of Uber. “Imagine six people behind a table and that’s your whole team. Day in and day out you dream what Uber could be,” he said, almost choking up a little. (Kalanick clearly wants very, very badly to be CEO again.)

And in a sudden reversal, his unrelatable Silicon Valley bro mannerisms became a defense against Waymo’s attacks. “Yesterday you helped us understand ‘jam sesh.’ Can you help us understand ‘cheat codes’?” asked Karen Dunn, counsel for Uber, giving Kalanick a chance to clarify a meeting note where he’s recorded as saying, “Cheat codes. Find them. Use them.

Kalanick defined “cheat codes” as slang for “elegant solutions to problems that haven’t already been thought of,” describing Uber’s algorithm for determining wait time for a car as a type of “cheat code.”

When Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven took over again to interrogate him, he returned to cheat codes. “In the context of video games, you know what a cheat code is?”

“Yes,” Kalanick replied. “But those codes in those games are put there on purpose by the publisher of the games and they want the players to have them. It’s part of the fun of the game.”

“That’s just the game,” he added, before Verhoeven could continue.

Verhoeven tried again, “A cheat code allows you to skip ahead, allows you to skip a level and not do the work.”

“No — ” Kalanick began to say, before Verhoeven quickly turned to the judge and said, “That’s it, your honor.” And with that, Travis Kalanick exited the courtroom.

So much for “cheat codes.”

Even with Kalanick’s champion efforts to put a nice face on Uber, the Stroz report remains. A due diligence investigation initiated by Uber prior to the Ottomotto acquisition has become Uber’s bane during this lawsuit. One of the memos describes a mid-March meeting with Anthony Levandowski, Travis Kalanick, Uber business development head Cameron Poetzscher, and Nina Qi. Talks to acquire Ottomotto were already underway. By the way, Levandowski said, he had stumbled across five Drobo disks (a type of digital storage) in a closet in his guest bedroom, and they appeared to maybe have Google confidential information in them. There’s “stuff on them I don’t want you to have and you don’t want to have,” he told them.

Poetzscher told him to preserve the disks, Kalanick contradicted him and told Levandowski to “do what he needed to do.” Poetzscher was troubled; Nina Qi was quiet, but “amused and astonished.”

In court, Kalanick said he knew nothing of the Stroz report at the time, and Qi said she was never aware of any Google trade secrets. Poetzscher was not called to testify.

It’s admissible hearsay that falls under a certain exception, but Judge Alsup still took a moment to tell the jury that they should keep in mind that when people report what other people say, things can get “goofed up” in the process.

How much did Kalanick, Poetzscher, Qi, and others know about the files that Anthony Levandowski took with him from Google to Ottomotto? And what happened to the information when he got to Uber? Waymo hasn’t established a clear link yet, but there are days left to go, and Uber’s denials feel flimsy in the face of spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of deleted text messages uncovered by forensic analysis.

Kalanick was never cagey with his answers and he easily admitted that he probably did click on the “Greed is Good” speech. Kalanick was carefully prepped to sound like he had nothing to hide. Too bad that prep didn’t start years ago.