Many people in Silicon Valley believe in the Singularity—the day in our near future when computers will surpass humans in intelligence and kick off a feedback loop of unfathomable change.
When that day comes, Anthony Levandowski will be firmly on the side of the machines. In September 2015, the multi-millionaire engineer at the heart of the trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, founded a religious organization called Way of the Future. Its purpose, according to previously unreported state filings, is nothing less than to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.”
Way of the Future has not yet responded to requests for the forms it must submit annually to the Internal Revenue Service (and make publicly available), as a non-profit religious corporation. However, documents filed with California show that Levandowski is Way of the Future’s CEO and President, and that it aims “through understanding and worship of the Godhead, [to] contribute to the betterment of society.”
A divine AI may still be far off, but Levandowski has made a start at providing AI with an earthly incarnation. The autonomous cars he was instrumental in developing at Google are already ferrying real passengers around Phoenix, Arizona, while self-driving trucks he built at Otto are now part of Uber’s plan to make freight transport safer and more efficient. He even oversaw a passenger-carrying drones project that evolved into Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk startup.
Levandowski has done perhaps more than anyone else to propel transportation toward its own Singularity, a time when automated cars, trucks and aircraft either free us from the danger and drudgery of human operation—or decimate mass transit, encourage urban sprawl, and enable deadly bugs and hacks.
But before any of that can happen, Levandowski must face his own day of reckoning. In February, Waymo—the company Google’s autonomous car project turned into—filed a lawsuit against Uber. In its complaint, Waymo says that Levandowski tried to use stealthy startups and high-tech tricks to take cash, expertise, and secrets from Google, with the aim of replicating its vehicle technology at arch-rival Uber. Waymo is seeking damages of nearly $1.9 billion—almost half of Google’s (previously unreported) $4.5 billion valuation of the entire self-driving division. Uber denies any wrongdoing.
Next month’s trial in a federal courthouse in San Francisco could steer the future of autonomous transportation. A big win for Waymo would prove the value of its patents and chill Uber’s efforts to remove profit-sapping human drivers from its business. If Uber prevails, other self-driving startups will be encouraged to take on the big players—and a vindicated Levandowski might even return to another startup. (Uber fired him in May.)
Levandowski has made a career of moving fast and breaking things. As long as those things were self-driving vehicles and little-loved regulations, Silicon Valley applauded him in the way it knows best—with a firehose of cash. With his charm, enthusiasm, and obsession with deal-making, Levandowski came to personify the disruption that autonomous transportation is likely to cause.
But even the smartest car will crack up if you floor the gas pedal too long. Once feted by billionaires, Levandowski now finds himself starring in a high-stakes public trial as his two former employers square off. By extension, the whole technology industry is there in the dock with Levandowski. Can we ever trust self-driving cars if it turns out we can’t trust the people who are making them?
In Silicon Valley mythologies, every childhood potato clock presages genius and every lemonade stand foretells CEO savvy. But Levandowski’s technophilia and entrepreneurship do seem to run deep. He was born in Brussels, Belgium to a French diplomat mother and an American businessman. In the mid 1990s, his father brought Levandowski to California, where the gangly, gregarious teenager sold candy to fellow students and built websites for local firms. A classmate I interviewed recalls him eagerly doing a show-and-tell with a cutting edge Apple Newton—and crisp new $100 bills.
One of his earliest robotics successes came during his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley: He programmed a toy robot to sort Monopoly money. Meanwhile, his web business was bringing in real cash: $50,000 a year, as he boasted to the New Yorker in 2013. Before Levandowski had graduated, with help from his parents, he had bought his first house near UC Berkeley.
Berkeley robotics, automation, and new media professor Ken Goldberg has “only positive things to say about Anthony. He was terrific as a student in my lab, very creative, energetic, and talented.” Levandowski is named as a co-inventor on a patent filed in 2002 by Goldberg for an interactive virtual reality entertainment system called Tele-Actor.
In 2002, Levandowski’s attention turned, fatefully, toward transportation. His mother called him from Brussels about a contest being organized by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA. The first Grand Challenge in 2004 would race robotic, computer-controlled vehicles in a desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas—a Wacky Races for the 21st century.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is absolutely the future,’” Levandowski told me in 2016. “It struck a chord deep in my DNA. I didn’t know where it was going to be used or how it would work out, but I knew that this was going to change things.”
Levandowski’s entry would be nothing so boring as a car. “I originally wanted to do an automated forklift,” he said at a follow-up competition in 2005. “Then I was driving to Berkeley [one day] and a pack of motorcycles descended on my pickup and flowed like water around me.” The idea for Ghostrider was born—a gloriously deranged self-driving Yamaha motorcycle whose wobbles inspired laughter from spectators, but awe in rivals struggling to get even four-wheeled vehicles driving smoothly.
“Anthony would go for weeks on 25-hour days to get everything done. Every day he would go to bed an hour later than the day before,” remembers Randy Miller, a college friend who worked with him on Ghostrider. “Without a doubt, Anthony is the smartest, hardest-working and most fearless person I’ve ever met.”
Levandowski and his team of Berkeley students maxed out his credit cards getting Ghostrider working on the streets of Richmond, California, where it racked up an astonishing 800 crashes in a thousand miles of testing. Ghostrider never won a Grand Challenge, but its ambitious design earned Levandowski bragging rights—and the motorbike a place in the Smithsonian.
“I see Grand Challenge not as the end of the robotics adventure we’re on, it’s almost like the beginning,” Levandowski told Scientific American in 2005. “This is where everyone is meeting, becoming aware of who’s working on what, [and] filtering out the non-functional ideas.”
One idea that made the cut was lidar—spinning lasers that rapidly built up a 3D picture of a car’s surroundings. In the first Grand Challenge, no vehicle made it further than a few miles along the course. In the second, as laser tech improved, an engineer named Dave Hall constructed a lidar that “was giant. It was one-off but it was awesome,” Levandowski told me. “We realized, yes, lasers [are] the way to go.”
After graduate school, Levandowski went to work for Hall’s company, Velodyne, as it pivoted from making loudspeakers to selling lidars. Levandowski not only talked his way into being the company’s first sales rep, targeting teams working towards the next Grand Challenge, but he also worked on the lidar’s networking. By the time of the third and final DARPA contest in 2007, Velodyne’s lidar was mounted on five of the six vehicles that finished.
But Levandowski had already moved on. Ghostrider had caught the eye of Sebastian Thrun, a robotics professor and team leader of Stanford University’s winning entry in the second competition. In 2006, Thrun invited Levandowski to help out with a project called VueTool, which was setting out to piece together street-level urban maps using cameras mounted on moving vehicles. Google was already working on a similar system, called Street View. Early in 2007, Google brought on Thrun and his entire team as employees—with bonuses as high as $1 million each, according to one contemporary at Google—to troubleshoot Street View and bring it to launch.
“[Hiring the VueTool team] was very much a scheme for paying Thrun and the others to show Google how to do it right,” remembers the engineer. The new hires replaced Google’s bulky, custom-made $250,000 cameras with $15,000 off-the-shelf panoramic webcams. Then they went auto shopping. “Anthony went to a car store and said we want to buy 100 cars,” Sebastian Thrun told me in 2015. “The dealer almost fell over.”
Levandowski was also making waves in the office, even to the point of telling engineers not to waste time talking to colleagues outside the project, according to one Google engineer. “It wasn’t clear what authority Anthony had, and yet he came in and assumed authority,” said the engineer, who asked to remain anonymous. “There were some bad feelings but mostly [people] just went with it. He’s good at that. He’s a great leader.”
Under Thrun’s supervision, Street View cars raced to hit Page’s target of capturing a million miles of road images by the end of 2007. They finished in October—just in time, as it turned out. Once autumn set in, every webcam succumbed to rain, condensation, or cold weather, grounding all 100 vehicles.
Part of the team’s secret sauce was a device that would turn a raw camera feed into a stream of data, together with location coordinates from GPS and other sensors. Google engineers called it the Topcon box, named after the Japanese optical firm that sold it. But the box was actually designed by a local startup called 510 Systems. “We had one customer, Topcon, and we licensed our technology to them,” one of the 510 Systems owners told me.
That owner was…Anthony Levandowski, who had cofounded 510 Systems with two fellow Berkeley researchers, Pierre-Yves Droz and Andrew Schultz, just weeks after starting work at Google. 510 Systems had a lot in common with the Ghostrider team. Berkeley students worked there between lectures, and Levandowski’s mother ran the office. Topcon was chosen as a go-between because it had sponsored the self-driving motorcycle. “I always liked the idea that…510 would be the people that made the tools for people that made maps, people like Navteq, Microsoft, and Google,” Levandowski told me in 2016.
Google’s engineering team was initially unaware that 510 Systems was Levandowski’s company, several engineers told me. That changed once Levandowski proposed that Google also use the Topcon box for its small fleet of aerial mapping planes. “When we found out, it raised a bunch of eyebrows,” remembers an engineer. Regardless, Google kept buying 510’s boxes.
The truth was, Levandowski and Thrun were on a roll. After impressing Larry Page with Street View, Thrun suggested an even more ambitious project called Ground Truth to map the world’s streets using cars, planes, and a 2,000-strong team of cartographers in India. Ground Truth would allow Google to stop paying expensive licensing fees for outside maps, and bring free turn-by-turn directions to Android phones—a key differentiator in the early days of its smartphone war with Apple.
Levandowski spent months shuttling between Mountain View and Hyderabad—and yet still found time to create an online stock market prediction game with Jesse Levinson, a computer science post-doc at Stanford who later cofounded his own autonomous vehicle startup, Zoox. “He seemed to always be going a mile a minute, doing ten things,” said Ben Discoe, a former engineer at 510. “He had an engineer’s enthusiasm that was contagious, and was always thinking about how quickly we can get to this amazing robot future he’s so excited about.”
One time, Discoe was chatting in 510’s break room about how lidar could help survey his family’s tea farm on Hawaii. “Suddenly Anthony said, ‘Why don’t you just do it? Get a lidar rig, put it in your luggage, and go map it,’” said Discoe. “And it worked. I made a kick-ass point cloud [3D digital map] of the farm.”
If Street View had impressed Larry Page, the speed and accuracy of Ground Truth’s maps blew him away. The Google cofounder gave Thrun carte blanche to do what he wanted; he wanted to return to self-driving cars.
Project Chauffeur began in 2008, with Levandowski as Thrun’s right-hand man. As with Street View, Google engineers would work on the software while 510 Systems and a recent Levandowski startup, Anthony’s Robots, provided the lidar and the car itself.
Levandowski said this arrangement would have acted as a firewall if anything went terribly wrong. “Google absolutely did not want their name associated with a vehicle driving in San Francisco,” he told me in 2016. “They were worried about an engineer building a car that drove itself that crashes and kills someone and it gets back to Google. You have to ask permission [for side projects] and your manager has to be OK with it. Sebastian was cool. Google was cool.”
In order to move Project Chauffeur along as quickly as possible from theory to reality, Levandowski enlisted the help of a filmmaker friend he had worked with at Berkeley. In the TV show the two had made, Levandowski had created a cybernetic dolphin suit (seriously). Now they came up with the idea of a self-driving pizza delivery car for a show on the Discovery Channel called Prototype This! Levandowski chose a Toyota Prius, because it had a drive-by-wire system that was relatively easy to hack.
In a matter of weeks, Levandowski’s team had the car, dubbed Pribot, driving itself. If anyone asked what they were doing, Levandowski told me, “We’d say it’s a laser and just drive off.”
“Those were the Wild West days,” remembers Ben Discoe. “Anthony and Pierre-Yves…would engage the algorithm in the car and it would almost swipe some other car or almost go off the road, and they would come back in and joke about it. Tell stories about how exciting it was.”
But for the Discovery Channel show, at least, Levandowski followed the letter of the law. The Bay Bridge was cleared of traffic and a squad of police cars escorted the unmanned Prius from start to finish. Apart from getting stuck against a wall, the drive was a success. “You’ve got to push things and get some bumps and bruises along the way,” said Levandowski.
Another incident drove home the potential of self-driving cars. In 2010, Levandowski’s partner Stefanie Olsen was involved in a serious car accident while nine months pregnant with their first child. “My son Alex was almost never born,” Levandowski told a room full of Berkeley students in 2013. “Transportation [today] takes time, resources and lives. If you can fix that, that’s a really big problem to address.”
Over the next few years, Levandowski was key to Chauffeur’s progress. 510 Systems built five more self-driving cars for Google—as well as random gadgets like an autonomous tractor and a portable lidar system. “Anthony is lightning in a bottle, he has so much energy and so much vision,” remembers a friend and former 510 engineer. “I fricking loved brainstorming with the guy. I loved that we could create a vision of the world that didn’t exist yet and both fall in love with that vision.”
But there were downsides to his manic energy, too. “He had this very weird motivation about robots taking over the world—like actually taking over, in a military sense,” said the same engineer. “It was like [he wanted] to be able to control the world, and robots were the way to do that. He talked about starting a new country on an island. Pretty wild and creepy stuff. And the biggest thing is that he’s always got a secret plan, and you’re not going to know about it.”
In early 2011, that plan was to bring 510 Systems into the Googleplex. The startup’s engineers had long complained that they did not have equity in the growing company. When matters came to a head, Levandowski drew up a plan that would reserve the first $20 million of any acquisition for 510’s founders and split the remainder among the staff, according to two former 510 employees. “They said we were going to sell for hundreds of millions,” remembers one engineer. “I was pretty thrilled with the numbers.”
Indeed, that summer, Levandowski sold 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots to Google — for $20 million, the exact cutoff before the wealth would be shared. Rank and file engineers did not see a penny, and some were even let go before the acquisition was completed. “I regret how it was handled…Some people did get the short end of the stick,” admitted Levandowski in 2016. The buyout also caused resentment among engineers at Google, who wondered how Levandowski could have made such a profit from his employer.
There would be more profits to come. According to a court filing, Page took a personal interest in motivating Levandowski, issuing a directive in 2011 to “make Anthony rich if Project Chauffeur succeeds.” Levandowski was given by far the highest share, about 10 percent, of a bonus program linked to a future valuation of Chauffeur—a decision that would later cost Google dearly.
Ever since a New York Times story in 2010 revealed Project Chauffeur to the world, Google had been wanting to ramp up testing on public streets. That was tough to arrange in well-regulated California, but Levandowski wasn’t about to let that stop him. While manning Google’s stand at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2011, he got to chatting with lobbyist David Goldwater. “He told me he was having a hard time in California and I suggested Google try a smaller state, like Nevada,” Goldwater told me.
Together, Goldwater and Levandowski drafted legislation that would allow the company to test and operate self-driving cars in Nevada. By June, their suggestions were law, and in May 2012, a Google Prius passed the world’s first “self-driving tests” in Las Vegas and Carson City. “Anthony is gifted in so many different ways,” said Goldwater. “He’s got a strategic mind, he’s got a tactical mind, and a once-in-a-generation intellect. The great thing about Anthony is that he was willing to take risks, but they were calculated risks.”
However, Levandowski’s risk-taking had ruffled feathers at Google. It was only after Nevada had passed its legislation that Levandowski discovered Google had a whole team dedicated to government relations. “I thought you could just do it yourself,” he told me sheepishly in 2016. “[I] got a little bit in trouble for doing it.”
That might be understating it. One problem was that Levandowski had lost his air cover at Google. In May 2012, his friend Sebastian Thrun turned his attention to starting online learning company Udacity. Page put another professor, Chris Urmson from Carnegie Mellon, in charge. Not only did Levandowski think the job should have been his, but the two also had terrible chemistry.
“They had a really hard time getting along,” said Page at a deposition in July. “It was a constant management headache to help them get through that.”
Then in July 2013, Gaetan Pennecot, a 510 alum working on Chauffeur’s lidar team, got a worrying call from a vendor. According to Waymo’s complaint, a small company called Odin Wave had placed an order for a custom-made part that was extremely similar to one used in Google’s lidars.
Pennecot shared this with his team leader, Pierre-Yves Droz, the cofounder of 510 Systems. Droz did some digging and replied in an email to Pennecot (in French, which we’ve translated): “They’re clearly making a lidar. And it’s John (510’s old lawyer) who incorporated them. The date of incorporation corresponds to several months after Anthony fell out of favor at Google.”
As the story emerges in court documents, Droz had found Odin Wave’s company records. Not only had Levandowski’s lawyer founded the company in August 2012, but it was also based in a Berkeley office building that Levandowski owned, was being run by a friend of Levandowski’s, and its employees included engineers he had worked with at Velodyne and 510 Systems. One even spoke with Levandowski before being hired. The company was developing long range lidars similar to those Levandowski had worked on at 510 Systems. But Levandowski’s name was nowhere on the firm’s paperwork.
Droz confronted Levandowski, who denied any involvement, and Droz decided not to follow the paper trail any further. “I was pretty happy working at Google, and…I didn’t want to jeopardize that by…exposing more of Anthony’s shenanigans,” he said at a deposition last month.
Odin Wave changed its name to Tyto Lidar in 2014, and in the spring of 2015 Levandowski was even part of a Google investigation into acquiring Tyto. This time, however, Google passed on the purchase. That seemed to demoralize Levandowski further. “He was rarely at work, and he left a lot of the responsibility [for] evaluating people on the team to me or others,” said Droz in his deposition.
“Over time my patience with his manipulations and lack of enthusiasm and commitment to the project [sic], it became clearer and clearer that this was a lost cause,” said Chris Urmson in a deposition.
As he was torching bridges at Google, Levandowski was itching for a new challenge. Luckily, Sebastian Thrun was back on the autonomous beat. Larry Page and Thrun had been thinking about electric flying taxisthat could carry one or two people. Project Tiramisu, named after the dessert which means “lift me up” in Italian, involved a winged plane flying in circles, picking up passengers below using a long tether.
Thrun knew just the person to kickstart Tiramisu. According to a source working there at the time, Levandowski was brought in to oversee Tiramisu as an “advisor and stakeholder.” Levandowski would show up at the project’s workspace in the evenings, and was involved in tests at one of Page’s ranches. Tiramisu’s tethers soon pivoted to a ride-aboard electric drone, now called the Kitty Hawk flyer. Thrun is CEO of Kitty Hawk, which is funded by Page rather than Alphabet, the umbrella company that now owns Google and its sibling companies.
Waymo’s complaint says that around this time Levandowski started soliciting Google colleagues to leave and start a competitor in the autonomous vehicle business. Droz testified that Levandowski told him it “would be nice to create a new self-driving car startup.” Furthermore, he said that Uber would be interested in buying the team responsible for Google’s lidar.
Uber had exploded onto the self-driving car scene early in 2015, when it lured almost 50 engineers away from Carnegie Mellon University to form the core of its Advanced Technologies Center. Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick had described autonomous technology as an existential threat to the ride-sharing company, and was hiring furiously. According to Droz, Levandowski said that he began meeting Uber executives that summer.
When Urmson learned of Levandowski’s recruiting efforts, his deposition states, he sent an email to human resources in August beginning, “We need to fire Anthony Levandowski.” Despite an investigation, that did not happen.
But Levandowski’s now not-so-secret plan would soon see him leaving of his own accord—with a mountain of cash. In 2015, Google was due to starting paying the Chauffeur bonuses, linked to a valuation that it would have “sole and absolute discretion” to calculate. According to previously unreported court filings, external consultants calculated the self-driving car project as being worth $8.5 billion. Google ultimately valued Chauffeur at around half that amount: $4.5 billion. Despite this downgrade, Levandowski’s share in December 2015 amounted to over $50 million — nearly twice as much as the second largest bonus of $28 million, paid to Chris Urmson.
Otto seemed to spring forth fully formed in May 2016, demonstrating a self-driving 18-wheel truck barreling down a Nevada highway with no one behind the wheel. In reality, Levandowski had been planning it for some time.
Levandowski and his Otto cofounders at Google had spent the Christmas holidays and the first weeks of 2016 taking their recruitment campaign up a notch, according to Waymo court filings. Waymo’s complaint alleges Levandowski told colleagues he was planning to “replicate” Waymo’s technology at a competitor, and was even soliciting his direct reports at work.
One engineer who had worked at 510 Systems attended a barbecue at Levandowski’s home in Palo Alto, where Levandowski pitched his former colleagues and current Googlers on the startup. “He wanted every Waymo person to resign simultaneously, a fully synchronized walkout. He was firing people up for that,” remembers the engineer.
On January 27, Levandowski resigned from Google without notice. Within weeks, Levandowski had a draft contract to sell Otto to Uber for an amount widely reported as $680 million. Although the full-scale synchronized walkout never happened, half a dozen Google employees went with Levandowski, and more would join in the months ahead. But the new company still did not have a product to sell.
Levandowski brought Nevada lobbyist David Goldwater back to help. “There was some brainstorming with Anthony and his team,” said Goldwater in an interview. “We were looking to do a demonstration project where we could show what he was doing.”
After exploring the idea of an autonomous passenger shuttle in Las Vegas, Otto settled on developing a driverless semi-truck. But with the Uber deal rushing forward, Levandowski needed results fast. “By the time Otto was ready to go with the truck, they wanted to get right on the road,” said Goldwater. That meant demonstrating their prototype without obtaining the very autonomous vehicle licence Levandowski had persuaded Nevada to adopt. (One state official called this move “illegal.”) Levandowski also had Otto acquire the controversial Tyto Lidar—the company based in the building he owned—in May, for an undisclosed price.
The full-court press worked. Uber completed its own acquisition of Otto in August, and Uber founder Travis Kalanick put Levandowski in charge of the combined companies’ self-driving efforts across personal transportation, delivery and trucking. Uber would even propose a Tiramisu-like autonomous air taxi called Uber Elevate. Now reporting directly to Kalanick and in charge of a 1500-strong group, Levandowski demanded the email address “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
In Kalanick, Levandowski found both a soulmate and a mentor to replace Sebastian Thrun. Text messages between the two, disclosed during the lawsuit’s discovery process, capture Levandowski teaching Kalanick about lidar at late night tech sessions, while Kalanick shared advice on management. “Down to hang out this eve and mastermind some shit,” texted Kalanick, shortly after the acquisition. “We’re going to take over the world. One robot at a time,” wrote Levandowski another time.
But Levandowski’s amazing robot future was about to crumble before his eyes.
Last December, Uber launched a pilot self-driving taxi program in San Francisco. As with Otto in Nevada, Levandowski failed to get a license to operate the high-tech vehicles, claiming that because the cars needed a human overseeing them, they were not truly autonomous. The DMV disagreed and revoked the vehicles’ licenses. Even so, during the week the cars were on the city’s streets, they had been spotted running red lights on numerous occasions.
Worse was yet to come. Levandowski had always been a controversial figure at Google. With his abrupt resignation, the launch of Otto, and its rapid acquisition by Uber, Google launched an internal investigation in the summer of 2016. It found that Levandowski had downloaded nearly 10 gigabytes of Google’s secret files just before he resigned, many of them relating to lidar technology.
Also in December 2016, in an echo of the Tyto incident, a Waymo employee was accidentally sent an email from a vendor that included a drawing of an Otto circuit board. The design looked very similar to Waymo’s current lidars.
Waymo says the “final piece of the puzzle” came from a story about Otto I wrote for Backchannel based on a public records request. A document sent by Otto to Nevada officials boasted the company had an “in-house custom-built 64-laser” lidar system. To Waymo, that sounded very much like technology it had developed. In February this year, Waymo filed its headline lawsuit accusing Uber (along with Otto Trucking, yet another of Levandowski’s companies, but one that Uber had not purchased) of violating its patents and misappropriating trade secrets on lidar and other technologies.
Uber immediately denied the accusations and has consistently maintained its innocence. Uber says there is no evidence that any of Waymo’s technical files ever came to Uber, let alone that Uber ever made use of them. While Levandowski is not named as a defendant, he has refused to answer questions in depositions with Waymo’s lawyers and is expected to do the same at trial. (He turned down several requests for interviews for this story.) He also didn’t fully cooperate with Uber’s own investigation into the allegations, and that, Uber says, is why it fired him in May.
Levandowski probably does not need a job. With the purchase of 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots, his salary, and bonuses, Levandowski earned at least $120 million from his time at Google. Some of that money has been invested in multiple real estate developments with his college friend Randy Miller, including several large projects in Oakland and Berkeley.
But Levandowski has kept busy behind the scenes. In August, court filings say, he personally tracked down a pair of earrings given to a Google employee at her going-away party in 2014. The earrings were made from confidential lidar circuit boards, and will presumably be used by Otto Trucking’s lawyers to suggest that Waymo does not keep a very close eye on its trade secrets.
Some of Levandowski’s friends and colleagues have expressed shock at the allegations he faces, saying that they don’t reflect the person they knew. “It is…in character for Anthony to play fast and loose with things like intellectual property if it’s in pursuit of building his dream robot,” said Ben Discoe. “[But] I was a little surprised at the alleged magnitude of his disregard for IP.”
“Definitely one of Anthony’s faults is to be aggressive as he is, but it’s also one of his great attributes. I don’t see [him doing] all the other stuff he has been accused of,” said David Goldwater.
But Larry Page is no longer convinced that Levandowski was key to Chauffeur’s success. In his deposition to the court, Page said, “I believe Anthony’s contributions are quite possibly negative of a high amount.” At Uber, some engineers privately say that Levandowski’s poor management style set back that company’s self-driving effort by a couple of years.
Even after this trial is done, Levandowski will not be able to rest easy. In May, a judge referred evidence from the case to the US Attorney’s office “for investigation of possible theft of trade secrets,” raising the possibility of criminal proceedings and prison time. Yet on the timeline that matters to Anthony Levandowski, even that may not mean much. Building a robotically enhanced future is his passionate lifetime project. On the Way of the Future, lawsuits or even a jail sentence might just feel like little bumps in the road.
“This case is teaching Anthony some hard lessons but I don’t see [it] keeping him down,” said Randy Miller. “He believes firmly in his vision of a better world through robotics and he’s convinced me of it. It’s clear to me that he’s on a mission.”
“I think Anthony will rise from the ashes,” agrees one friend and former 510 Systems engineer. “Anthony has the ambition, the vision, and the ability to recruit and drive people. If he could just play it straight, he could be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. But he just doesn’t know when to stop cutting corners.”
With special thanks to Wayt Gibbs, who generously provided me with original notes and interview material from his Scientific American story on the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge.
Correction at 9:30 AM on Sept. 29, 2017: This story originally described Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber as about patents and trade secrets. Waymo’s complaints over patents have been dropped. Also, its original statement that the first DARPA Grand Challenge race was “lidar-less” was incorrect.