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A Casualty in The Ongoing Battle Over Self-Driving Car Technology

Stachler Harmon Attorneys at Law June 2, 2017

The continuing war between one of the world’s most powerful combines and a well-financed up-and-comer has yet another casualty.

Anthony Levandowski who came to Uber to head the company’s self-driving automobile development was fired on May 30. The star engineer, according to many in the industry, has been plagued with accusations of stealing trade secrets after resigning from Google.

Google is considered a pioneer in autonomous car technology, getting a heard start that goes back nearly a decade. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a division now run through Waymo, a subsidiary of their parent company, Alphabet.

After leaving his former employer, Levandowski launched his own company, Otto. Uber acquired the start-up for $680 million last year, mostly in company equity, in exchange for Otto’s technology and team of experienced engineers. He and his staff would also receive a small percentage of profits from Uber’s self-driving trucking business under Levandowski’s direction.

That nine-figure transaction is a pivotal issue in a high-profile lawsuit between Uber and Google.

It only took a few months for Waymo to sue Uber over trade secrets stolen from Google to develop Uber’s self-driving vehicles. Waymo claims that Levandowski played a key role in the plot.

Uber has continually denied Google’s accusations. However, Levandowski made himself a liability when he asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination following a federal judge’s order to hand over evidence and testimony. After months of pressuring him to cooperate and after he missed an internal deadline to relinquish the information, Uber fired him.

The dismissal of Levandowski underscores the risks of the emerging star engineering culture that leads to sudden enrichment for a few people. They have made self-driving cars, once thought of as fodder for movies set in the future, a reality.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick claims that the future of his $70 billion ride-hailing company depends on cars without drivers. Yet, navigating through that new era of transportation requires everyone involved to avoid the potholes and stay on the straight and narrow.