The star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who is at the heart of the ongoing legal battle between Uber and its rival Waymo has just been fired. Until recently, Levandowski had been leading Uber’s effort for replacing human drivers with robot cars. He was a former employee at rival self-driving company Waymo and refused to hand over the documents that had been required by a federal court judge and Waymo in a high-profile legal war between the two Silicon Valley companies. Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. owns Waymo. It has accused Uber of stealing its self-driving technology, but the allegations have been denied by the San Francisco-based company.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Uber said that the driverless car program of the company will still continue to run under Eric Meyhofer, who had taken over from Levandowski when the case had begun back in April. Meyhofer now has the direct reports of Levandowski. The spokeswoman said that they had asked Anthony to aid with their internal investigation and had given him a deadline, which he didn’t meet. Since they were not willing to wait until the issue is resolved in court, they chose to fire him. Uber had been sued by Waymo in February and had alleged that 14,000 documents had been illegally used.
Waymo claimed that the documents were stolen by Levandowski while he was still working for them. When he quit, he moved onto starting his own company; Otto, a driverless truck startup. Uber reportedly paid $680 million for buying Otto and gave Levandowski charge of its own driverless project. The company insists that its driverless technology is a result of independent development and it didn’t take advantage of any stolen material. As far as Levandowski is concerned, he refused to turn over his computer or documents to anyone and has cited his 5th Amendment rights.
Therefore, William Alsup, the federal judge overseeing the case, had no choice but to put pressure on Uber for dealing with Levandowski. Earlier this month, the judge said that the Fifth Amendment didn’t give an excuse to Uber for pulling their punches in regard to Levandowski. That’s when the ride-hailing service told Levandowski to comply or he would be fired. In the meantime, the company is resisting Waymo’s request of releasing the term sheets they had signed last summer when it purchased Otto. The market for semi-autonomous cars and also completely driverless ones has a lot of potential.
Forecasts indicate that the market will be worth tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade. Traditional automakers, technology firms and others are fighting to get a foothold in the market and the companies that are able to gain proprietary technological advantage will reap the benefits. Under the Google name, Waymo was the first out of the gate in 2009 with the first driverless project. Other companies are hoping to catch up to it and eventually surpass it. The technology that’s being fought over in the Waymo-Uber case is called Lidar and is regarded as an essential component for driverless cars.