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Uber Fires Self-Driving Head at Center of Legal Battle

May 30, 2017

Anthony Levandowski speaking about the future of self-driving trucks at last year's ATA Managment Conference & Exhibition. Photo: Evan Lockridge
Anthony Levandowski speaking about the future of self-driving trucks at last year's ATA Managment Conference & Exhibition. Photo: Evan Lockridge

In the latest fallout from the legal battle between Waymo and Uber, Anthony Levandowski, who headed Uber's self-driving technology group, has been fired, according to a report in the New York Times.

Levandowski was the central figure in Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber. That suit alleged that former Google employee Levandowski stole trade secrets related to lidar (light detection and ranging) technology when he left to form the self-driving truck company, Otto. Waymo is a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

Otto was later purchased by Uber and Levandowski was made the head of its Advanced Technologies Group.

This latest news came out of an internal memo at Uber. The writing was on the wall for Levandowski who stepped down from his position as the self-driving head at Uber as a result of the lawsuit. This was seen as a preemptive move to protect Uber’s self-driving technology development by diminishing Levandowski’s role.

Levandowski pled the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination when a court ordered him to testify in the case. Uber was unable to convince Levandowski to cooperate with the investigation.

Waymo filed the suit against Uber in February of this year, accusing Levandowski of stealing files from a computer about Google’s proprietary lidar radar sensors – a key component of self-driving technology. Lidar allows a vehicle to see the road and objects around it. However, a judge recently decided that Waymo was overreaching in its claims that the stolen information violated 120 patent claims.

Recently, Uber quietly discontinued the Otto brand name, consolidating the company’s activities under its Advanced Technologies Group. 

In another related development, the now-unnamed autonomous truck unit is potentially in hot water with California state officials, who announced that they will be conducting an inspection at Uber’s headquarters to see if it violated any laws by testing its trucks on public roads, according to a Forbes report.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles and California Highway Patrol are investigating whether an internal document at Otto detailing how the company tested its self-driving trucks violated state law. State law prohibits autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds from operating on public roads. Otto had apparently told DMV officials that the trucks it was testing were not being operated autonomously, however, the internal document seemed to contradict this.

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