Fury Road: Did Uber Steal the Driverless Future From Google?

Issue 03-20-17   |   Reviewer:   Craig A. Turner, Ph.D.


Google and Uber, both seen as exemplary entrepreneurial success stories, are now embroiled in a battle to become the dominant technology in the driverless car field. The stakes are high in this market, projected by both companies to be in the hundreds of billions, or even the trillion, dollar range. The two are dealing with failures and limited success, but they have too much invested to quit now.

At the heart of the battle is former Google employee Anthony Levandowski. Seen as a brilliant engineer, he was also a headache for management and coworkers at Google. His talent meant he was considered to head up Waymo, Google's driverless car division, but fellow engineers caused Larry Page to reconsider. The Google bypassed him for Waymo's leadership but did allow Levandowski a wide berth, ignoring his propensity to run parallel companies as he worked on the same projects under Google's umbrella. The company believed it was the cost of retaining such an entrepreneurial technologist happy and productive.

Finally, Levandowski tired of Google's reluctance to move forward faster and left to start his own company named Otto to contiinue his work. This is where his involvement with Uber founder Travis Kalanick began to blossom. Levandowski had known the CEO for five years, but after Levandowski left Google, the tw began to discuss the possibility of working together more seriously, including many clandestine meetings prior to Levandowski's departure from Waymo. They discovered they were kindred spirits focused on driving innovation into the marketplace rapidly and pushing the boundaries.

To Kalanick, competitors can imitate Uber's current strategy, but if Uber can run its business without drivers, the company could save one of its largest expenses and put a technological barrier into place. Kalanick soon bought Otto, and now has Levandowski onboard. What Levandowski brought with him is where the lawsuit between these Uber and Google begin. Google claims to have evidence that Levandowski took intellectual capital in the form of computer files and schematics before he left Google. While Google claims it will not sue former employees over such matters, Levandowski's alleged theft is too important to ignore.

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