By on May 31, 2017

Anthony Levandowski at MCE 2016, Image: Transport Topics/Flickr

Uber Technologies Inc. has fired Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of the company’s legal battle with Google and Alphabet’s self-driving division Waymo. The company confirmed the departure Tuesday, after weeks of Levandowski remaining silent as the court attempted to make sense of what had taken place between the two companies (as well as Uber’s own internal investigation).

The Waymo’s lawsuit alleges Levandowski stole proprietary information relating to their self-driving vehicles, which he then handed to Uber. In May, U.S. District Judge William Alsup stated that he believed there was evidence to suggest Uber had gained trade secrets belonging to Google and that Levandowski should be removed from his lead engineering role. However, the ride-sharing firm claims he was taken off autonomous development in April. 

Uber has maintained the termination is not an admission of guilt, but the direct result of Levandowski’s unwillingness to cooperate. An internal email, acquired by The New York Times, doubles down on that position.

“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” Angela L. Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, wrote in an staff email. “Over that same period, Uber has urged Anthony to fully cooperate in helping the court get to the facts and ultimately helping to prove our case.”

There could also have been pressure on Uber to make an example of Levandowski after a comprehensive piece outlining the company’s most egregious activities was published in NYMag over the weekend. The article goes far beyond recent missteps by highlighting the firm’s unstable business model, unsavory corporate culture, poor treatment of drivers, needless risk-taking, and an overall negative impact on the environment — despite Uber’s attempts to brand itself as eco-friendly.

Still, when you think about it, having scores of vehicles milling around a city in the hopes that an individual might eventually hail one doesn’t exactly sound like a green initiative.

The NYMag piece even managed to collect loads of scathingly negative comments from former employees — including one alleging Levandowski was annoyed Tesla had the first autonomous-related fatality, as it signaled his team wasn’t pushing R&D hard enough. “I’m pissed we didn’t have the first death,” he was reported to have said.

If that’s true, and Levandowski denies it, one might wonder why Uber didn’t cut him loose earlier. The company definitely doesn’t need another magnet for bad publicity hanging around its neck.

This week, the company is expected to wrap up its own internal investigation over claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, and a mismanagement in payroll that shortchanged drivers millions of dollars. Uber’s board should be presented with the results by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading the investigation, on Wednesday. A separate human resources investigation is also underway.

Levandowski has 20 days to contest Uber’s decision if he so chooses.

[Image: Transport Topics/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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6 Comments on “Uber Fires Notorious Engineer After Failing to Cooperate with Investigation...”

  • avatar

    When an employee takes the 5th in regard to conduct undertaken for the benefit of an employer, it’s not generally a good idea to keep said employee, unless, of course, you encourage your workforce to operate on the hairy edge of criminal law. (Usually stuff like this is a gray area, and is handled through civil suits.)

    With most companies, this would not be a difficult decision. But with Uber, I can totally see them agonizing over it, since, for them, the law for them is an inconvenience instead of a guideline.

  • avatar

    Based on the history of this case, Levandowski’s history and Uber’s, I personally believe this firing was transparent butt coverage on Uber’s part. They not only knew damn well what they were getting when they hired him – Google’s research – but that’s exactly why they hired him. Uber’s entire history and business plan have always been to aggressively discard both legality and morality, Every. Single. Chance. They. Get.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    As I predicted, Mr Levandowski is out of a job, with Uber and Waymo left to duke it out in court.

    +1 to the comments by sirwired and tonycd above.

    Rather than this firing making Uber appear chaste, I think it actually support’s Waymo’s claims that he and Uber were involved in a conspiracy to steal its intellectual property.

    Perhaps Mr Levandowski’s memory will recover, and he’ll sing to the court about what *really* happened, in exchange for a plea. This is getting interesting.

  • avatar

    “…it signaled his team wasn’t pushing R&D hard enough. “I’m pissed we didn’t have the first death,” he was reported to have said.”

    There is a legitimate philosophy that if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. But good people don’t measure it with a death rate. But the death of Uber, the company, could be a good thing.

  • avatar

    There’s a whole lotta smoke here, so I imagine we’ll find the fire in due time .

  • avatar

    Of course, the $64,000 question here is, was he actually cut loose or is this a smokescreen and he’ll reappear as a contractor, perhaps under the obfuscation of a LLC or two?

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