By on January 27, 2017

tesla model-s-rear

The former director of Tesla’s Autopilot program has choice words for his former employer.

Sterling Anderson is being sued by Tesla for stealing confidential information, which he allegedly put to use at a new autonomous vehicle start-up. According to Bloomberg, the electric automaker isn’t happy about his attempts to hire away Tesla employees, either.

In his response to the suit, Anderson doesn’t have very nice things to say about Tesla.

“Tesla’s meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition,” Anderson’s company, Aurora Innovation LLC, said in a statement Thursday.

“This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations. Aurora looks forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business.”

Anderson left the automaker in December, but not before laying the groundwork for a new company specializing in self-driving technology, Tesla alleges. During his tenure, the former director had full access to Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving technology. Aurora Innovation was formed with the help of former Google self-driving car head Chris Urmson.

With its suit, Tesla isn’t just looking to block the use of any of its proprietary information. It also wants to slam the brakes on Aurora’s go-to hiring practice. (That is, hiring away Tesla employees and contractors.) If granted, Tesla’s demand would see Aurora cease and desist from hiring these employees for a year following Anderson’s termination date.

Anderson had yet to announce the company when Tesla filed its lawsuit.

[Image: Tesla Motors]

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42 Comments on “‘Startling Paranoia’: Ex-Autopilot Director Sued by Tesla, Fires Back...”


  • avatar
    JRobUSC

    Huh. I seem to recall plenty of stories about Tesla being fairly predatory when it came to poaching employees from Apple, Google, etc. Seem like turnabout is fair play.

  • avatar
    scent tree

    Non-compete clauses are unenforceable in California, so I’m not sure how Tesla expects to win here unless people are walking out with Tesla IP when they leave.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      Tesla wins by forcing a new competitor to spend its time and money defending against lawsuits.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      scent, Part of it is to create fear in current employees to prevent further defections. Threatening to sue someone if they do x scares many into not doing x.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        Non competes are practically unenforceable in states where they are legal. I would think you could get this case dismissed with a motion for summary judgement in CA.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      scent tree, 3 thoughts:

      1. A person is not allowed to take away confidential information of his employer and use it on behalf of a new employer. In the case of technology, that is trade secret, it can be very hard to determine if someone is using his former employer’s confidential information or his own general knowledge.

      2. I have seen companies large and small write non-compete clauses that they must know are legally unenforceable. They do it because it works, in practice. A prospective new employer will very often simply not want to get involved in a lawsuit over a new hire, so they’ll pass in favour of someone who’s not subject to a non-compete.

      3. In the US, each party pays his own legal fees – if you win, there is no recovery from the losing side, as is the case in Commonwealth countries. Companies that can easily afford to bear the cost of a lawsuit are happy to do so whenever they believe that the individual defendant can’t afford to defend, or can’t afford to be without a job while the lawsuit runs its 2-4 year course. Cynical it is, but it’s often very effective in the particular case and acts as a chill against other employees being tempted to walk to a competitor.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I find the “so-and-so looks forward to proving/disproving these allegations in court” standard lawyer boilerplate to be hilarious.

    No plaintiff or defendant “looks forward” to court; it’s expensive and unpredictable. They’d much prefer the other side cave with an acceptable resolution before it goes to a jury (preferably, before the legal costs go up even more.)

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Tesla’s lawyers must surely know that non-compete agreements are void in California. On its face, the employee poaching aspect of Tesla’s case has no merit whatsoever, which only supports the claim that Tesla’s suit is frivolous.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      however, NDAs *are* enforceable so if they can show he took proprietary Tesla tech with him he may be up a creek.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        In practice, it usually doesn’t take much to alter a design enough so that it isn’t considered to be infringement. Autonomous car technology isn’t exactly a secret.

        It’s also ironic that a company that claimed that giving away its EV patents would help the company is going to do a 180 when it comes to something like this.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    I think it’s bizarre when companies complain about their employees getting poached.

    Good people with valuable skills always have lots of options.

    You want to keep your people where they are? Pay them what they’re worth, treat them well, give them interesting things to work on, and keep the time wasting corporate red tape to a minimum.

    If you don’t do that then don’t be surprised when somebody lures them away.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Good points, but if a high-six-figure suit has the opportunity to become a IPO zillionaire, he’s gonna do it, no matter how well paid a suit he was.

      • 0 avatar
        jkross22

        … unless you provide enough economic upside to stay where they are. Sure, if the bright engineer has an entrepreneurial itch, he’s likely to go, but why not at least give them some upside to ponder with stock grants, more autonomy, pet project work, etc. Who knows… maybe Tesla tried to retain Anderson but couldn’t/wouldn’t do enough to keep him.

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        Of course. But an employer shouldn’t act like a talented person pursuing a good opportunity is a horrible betrayal or treat it as something worthy of a lawsuit.

        • 0 avatar
          jkross22

          It doesn’t appear that way to me. It looks like they’re trying to scare their current employees that might consider leaving.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            I never thought that I would ever say this, but I agree with jkross22 100%.

            It’s an intimidation tactic. Most people don’t want to deal with the threat of litigation, even if the case is bogus. You can run out of money defending yourself before Tesla runs out of venom and gimmickry.

          • 0 avatar
            bikegoesbaa

            Now that I think about it more I’ve mostly seen the pearl-clutching shock at employee departures from idealistic CEO types who see their business as a divine calling of sorts and can’t imagine why anybody would want to ever leave.

            Everybody else just wants to get paid and do interesting things, and usually don’t care too much where that occurs.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            It would seem that Tesla is upset with Anderson and is trying to squeeze him however possible.

            It may be personal, not just business.

        • 0 avatar
          Ol Shel

          Nobody here knows what he actually did, but most seem to think they do.

          I believe it is illegal to recruit employees while at the company you’re leaving. Once you’ve left, it’s A-O.K.

          • 0 avatar
            WildcatMatt

            Interestingly, one of my bosses took a new job and reported back on one of the more interesting parts of his employment agreement: He was encouraged to headhunt from his previous position for openings at his new employer, but when leaving said new employer he was not allowed to recruit coworkers for at least 12 months.

            You can bring your friends, but you’ll have to leave them here.

    • 0 avatar
      mechaman

      My wife has a ready comment about such goings on: “But that would be too much like right.”

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Does California have anti-SLAPP laws? Sounds like Anderson should be filing motions.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’m intrigued that anyone actually *wants* to develop AVs, since I believe their deployment will eventually be limited by consumer hesitance to accept legal liability for the activation of the technology.

    It’s all sunshine and rainbows until mfrs and auto insurers begin writing checks to plaintiffs.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      I think it starts in commercial uses. A large trucking company will happily accept liability once an AV is shown to be safer than a human. Then Uber, at which point car ownership will become increasingly optional.

      We think this is way out in the future, but it could happen shockingly fast. My youngest is 10 years old. I’d say its even money whether he ever needs to drive.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Everyone thinks that THEY are a great driver, much better than any machine could ever be, but reality is otherwise. Even at the current state of autonomous technology, accidents would go down at least 50% and in the future even more. Might you buy an autonomous car if the insurance rates were half as much?

      The problem with current thinking about autonomous cars is that for some reason people want them to be PERFECT – unless they produce ZERO accidents they shouldn’t be allowed to drive at all. But some 85 year old guy with slow reflexes or some thrill seeking teenage boy – no problem, here are your keys.

      • 0 avatar
        mechaman

        More is expected from those who offer more…if you are telling the great unwashed (I stink too) that your tech will reduce accidents, or even eliminate them, well, they’ll hold you to your claim.

    • 0 avatar
      mechaman

      Depends on who gets hurt or worse, I think. One of us, maybe not so much furor. I think that despite most people having no awareness of Asimov’s Three Laws, a machine that malfunctions and harms people, especially the more hyped up the tech is, will get more lashback if something goes snafu. But as I said before, depends on who gets hurt.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    I don’t know why anyone would buy an autonomous car for personal use. Driving is one of the great remaining freedoms we get to regularly enjoy. Should a three-pedal car become ‘quaint’ in my lifetime then I suppose I’m OK with being quaint. My two boys will learn to drive a manual transmission well, then they will get to work on an old Chevy pickup truck, before either get a driver’s licence.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      It’s a “freedom” that kills as many people as a major war, every year, year after year. What people don’t get is very soon it’s going to be illegal for humans to drive on public streets. Chess computers went very rapidly from the point where they could beat gifted amateurs to where they could beat pros to the point where no human could ever challenge them. “Driving” can be your hobby that you can do off road where you are not endangering the general public.

  • avatar
    EBFlex

    With Tesla producing nothing but crap, what person in their right mind would poach any of it?

    Autopilot has killed numerous people, it’s a technology to avoid.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Silicon Valley is losing it’s once were edge; one lawyer, VC and other leech at a time.

    If Tesla can’t do what Aurora does better than Aurora, it’s best if Tesla close up shop and leave the field to more competent people.

  • avatar
    CriticalMass

    Autonomous may not work until everyone is forced to have communications and mandatory cooperation among vehicles. I don’t know about you but if I see an autonomous vehicle, especially a commercial one, that is the one I know I can merge in front of without fear it will run me over. I’ll have time to steal its parking place. Or maybe make it hold still while I siphon its gas. Intimidation of robots could be great sport! UPS/Amazon would have to lengthen their delivery times, milk would go bad in transit and organ transplants could only be sent reliably by drones. Oh the humanity!

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      Agreed. Without segregation from meat-sack drivers AVs will be the few smart kids in a school otherwise full of Donalds.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        Segregation from meat-sack drivers? Okay, what about segregation from even bigger meat-sack deer and moose? V2V communications will augment AV systems, but it’s no magic bullet. AV systems will still depend primarily on new sensor technology and improved artificial intelligence.

        Oh, and merging in front of one without fear? Remember, there are still the laws of physics and it may not have time to avoid hitting you.

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