Uber fires head of its self-driving programme as Alphabet court case heats up
Uber has fired the main engineer leading its self-driving research project, Anthony Levandowski, after he failed to hand over documents following a court order issued under the legal dispute between Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo unit.
Uber had hoped Levandowski, one the most respected self-driving engineers in Silicon Valley, would help the ride services company catch up to rivals, including Waymo, in the race for self-driving technology. Instead, the hiring led to a court fight and the threat of criminal charges. Uber replaced him as the head of its self-driving car unit in April before finally making the decision to fire him.
Levandowski formerly worked for Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving division, which says he stole trade secrets by downloading more than 14,000 documents before he left. Levandowski is not a defendant, but his actions are at the heart of Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber.
Uber said in a letter to Levandowski, filed in federal court on Tuesday, that it was firing him because he had not complied with a court order to hand over the documents.
He has declined to cooperate, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. Levandowski’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Uber and Alphabet are battling over technology expected to revolutionise the way people use cars. Waymo claims its trade secrets made their way into Uber’s Lidar technology, which bounces light pulses off objects so self-driving cars can “see” the road. Uber denies these claims.
In March Uber was forced to suspend its autonomous car tests after one of its self-driving vehicles crashed into another car in Tempe, Arizona.
Levandowski has 20 days to comply with the court orders, according to the Uber letter.
Last month, Uber named Eric Meyhofer to replace Levandowski as head of its Advanced Technologies Group. Meyhofer will continue to lead the team, an Uber spokeswoman said via email.
The New York Times reported Levandowski’s exit on Tuesday, citing an internal email sent to employees.
“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” Angela Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, wrote in an email to employees, cited by the Times.
An Uber spokeswoman confirmed the letter’s authenticity and said the company has urged Levandowski to “fully cooperate”.
Waymo has said Levandowski received stock worth more than $250m for joining Uber, along with his portion of the $680m that Uber paid last year for Otto, the self-driving truck company he formed after leaving Google. That amount assumes certain targets would be met, and it was not clear how his firing would affect those payments.
A source familiar with the matter said Levandowski had not yet vested his Uber shares.
The company has acknowledged that his refusal to testify has hurt its defence efforts. Uber has never denied that he took the Waymo documents.
Asked last month why Uber did not threaten to fire Levandowski to pressure him into turning over the documents, Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez said: “We can fire him but we still don’t get the documents.”
Uber had argued that it was acceptable to sideline Levandowski by preventing him from working on Lidar technology, but not firing him. But US District Court Judge William Alsup criticised the company, telling lawyers: “You keep on your payroll someone who took 14,000 documents and is liable to use them.”
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