It’s hard to believe, but it was only 10 months ago that Anthony Levandowski ascended to arguably the most enviable position of any engineer pioneering autonomous technology. Uber acquired his months-old self-driving-truck startup in August 2016 for $680 million. After enriching him, the company put him in charge of all its autonomous-development efforts, a critical role for a ride-hailing company with a $60 billion valuation that is largely dependent on a future filled with self-driving vehicles.
At the time, it appeared to be a perfect match between a wildly ambitious, boundary-pushing company and an equally ambitious, envelope-pushing engineer. But less than a year later, the relationship is in shambles, and the role of either party in the advent of autonomous travel appears uncertain.
Uber fired Levandowski on Tuesday, citing his refusal to comply with requests for assistance into an internal investigation into whether Uber’s new lidar sensors had been built using proprietary trade secrets that Levandowski had extracted from his previous employer, Google.
“Your failure impeded Uber’s internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit referenced above and constitutes a ground for termination for cause.”
– Salle Yoo, Uber general counsel
The question of whether Levandowski stole more than 14,000 documents related to the autonomous-vehicle technology remains at the heart of a lawsuit that Google brought against Uber and Levandowski in February, a proceeding that will undoubtedly shape the race to deploy self-driving vehicles.
“We have been pressing Anthony to comply and assist with our internal investigation for months,” an Uber spokesperson said. “We set a deadline that he did not meet.”
Tuesday’s termination was set in motion earlier this month, when a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco ordered Uber to compel him to return any misbegotten files. Uber complied and launched its internal investigation that Levandowski ignored, according to the company.
“Your failure impeded Uber’s internal investigation and defense of the lawsuit referenced above and constitutes a ground for termination for cause,” wrote Salle Yoo, Uber’s general counsel, in a letter to Levandowski dated May 26.
Levandowski could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
By firing him, legal experts say, Uber boosts its efforts to show the court it was not intentionally using proprietary technology developed by Google, which spun its self-driving efforts into an independent company called Waymo in December 2016. But the lawsuit remains ongoing, and it’s one of a series of setbacks and sideshows that have beset the company in recent months.
Uber and Levandowski seemed to go out of their way to stir up some of their woes, including a public spat in December with the California Department of Motor Vehicles that resulted in the revocation of the registrations of more than a dozen Uber autonomous vehicles until the company finally capitulated and applied for an autonomous-vehicle permit.
Among broader challenges not specifically related to automation: The Department of Justice is investigating Uber’s use of a secret program called Greyball that helped the company evade law-enforcement and transportation officials seeking to monitor the company’s operations in certain locations.
Meanwhile, a former engineer wrote a blog post recounting incidents of sexual harassment she alleged that she experienced while working at the company. That struck a nerve across the entire tech sector, and then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was videotaped arguing with an Uber driver over wages in the ride-hailing industry.
If those events, along with others, shook investors’ faith in Uber, the future may look more dire for Levandowski. In earlier court proceedings, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. Criminal charges remain a possibility, as District Court Judge William Alsup has referred a portion of the Waymo-Uber case to the U.S. Attorney’s office for further investigation.