Waymo vs. Uber: How Potential Partnership Turned Into Rivalry

Uber repeatedly tried to partner with Google for years before the companies ended up as fierce rivals for the future of autonomous cars, Uber founder Travis Kalanick told a jury in San Francisco on Wednesday.As early as 2013, Uber talked to Google about pairing its ride-hailing prowess with the larger company’s self-driving car technology, Kalanick said. But over time, it proved hard to get the attention of his contact, Google co-founder Larry Page.

Tension grew as the two companies’ car projects started to overlap.

“It was kind of like a little brother with a big brother,” Kalanick said of the companies’ relationship. He testified Wednesday morning on the third day of a trade-secrets trial between Uber and Waymo — the company that grew out of Google’s self-driving car effort. Waymo has accused Uber of stealing eight key pieces of its intellectual property by acquiring a startup founded by former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski. The self-driving car company, a division of Google parent Alphabet, is seeking $1.8 billion in damages.

The sometimes hot-headed Kalanick seemed calm and mostly at ease as he answered questions on the stand for nearly two hours on February 7, his second and last day of testimony.

Late in the summer of 2013, Google invited Uber to work with its autonomous car project, Kalanick said. Google picked him up in one of its early self-driving cars. “I’m like ‘That’s pretty cool,'” Kalanick recalled. But Google wasn’t willing to give as much time to the partnership as Uber wanted, he said.

So starting in early 2015, Uber began to hire dozens of engineers from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to launch its own self-driving project. That got Google’s attention.

“Larry was very upset with us about us acquiring the CMU team and starting the autonomy effort ourselves,” Kalanick said. “He was a little angry and said, ‘Why are you doing my thing?'” Put another way, “Generally, Google was super unhappy, unpumped, about us doing this,” he said.

Those hirings gave Uber an advantage over Google that only grew after Uber attracted Levandowski and other Google employees, Uber’s lawyers have argued. They say Waymo is suing because it can’t keep up.

Kalanick had a phone call with Page in October 2016, after Uber acquired of Levandowski’s startup, called Otto. He said Page complained, “You’re taking our people. You’re taking our IP.” Kalanick said he told Page that Uber had a process to make sure it wasn’t stealing Google’s intellectual property.

Under questioning from an attorney for Uber, Karen Dunn of the firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, Kalanick said Uber hired Levandowski in 2016 for his brains, not trade secrets.

“We hired Anthony because we felt that he was incredibly visionary, a very good technologist, and he was also very charming,” Kalanick said. For one thing, Levandowski had a vision of what autonomous ride-hailing fleets could mean for cities of the future.

Kalanick also testified that Lidar, the laser-based vision system used in both Google’s and Uber’s vehicles, was only part of what Uber was seeking when it acquired Otto for $592 million. Waymo has said its former employee took its secret Lidar designs to Uber, which then duplicated them.

Under questioning by Waymo’s attorney, Charles Verhoeven of Quinn Emmanuel, Kalanick admitted that he went ahead with the Otto acquisition knowing Waymo might sue alleging intellectual-property theft.

At Levandowski’s request, Uber eventually agreed to indemnify him against such a lawsuit.

He also admitted that he never read a due-diligence report that Uber ordered from a forensics firm to ensure it didn’t receive any trade secrets through the acquisition. Kalanick said he signs hundreds of documents every day and doesn’t have time to read everything.

Waymo’s Verhoeven questioned Kalanick over many texts he exchanged with Levandowski in the months leading up to the Otto acquisition. One text from Levandowski simply said, “Burn the village.” Another Uber executive’s notes from a meeting showed Kalanick saying, “The golden time is over. It is war time.” Asked about this quote, he told Verhoeven, “It sounds like something I would say.”

Another text that Levandowski sent as Uber considered acquiring his company said, “Here’s the speech you need to give,” followed by a “wink” emoji and a YouTube link to the “greed is good” monologue from the 1987 film Wall Street.

Tech slang is also playing a role in the case. Notes from one Uber meeting showed Kalanick saying the company should get “cheat codes” for self-driving technology.

Verhoeven characterized “cheat codes” as codes designed to allow gamers to advance to the next level without earning points through the game to get there. But at one point in court, Kalanick defined the term another way, as anything that lets someone avoid a task or investment. He said one example of a “cheat code” might be Uber collecting real-time motion data from its cars as they stop and start at traffic lights. In aggregate, that data could allow Uber to tell what lights were red or green all across a city without having to install cameras to watch the lights. The data could be used for route planning and other applications.

The trial before Judge William Alsup of the US District Court in San Francisco continues Thursday and is expected to last about three weeks.


— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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