Levandowski: “… you got to take risks to get the job done”
The guy Uber and Waymo are battling over in court has an interesting career path. Here’s everything you need to know about Anthony Levandowski, from today’s edition of Inside Automotive.
Earlier this week, Uber’s head of self-driving projects Anthony Levandowski was barred from working on a key component of technology around the company’s self-driving car project. Levandowski has been at the center of a lawsuit Alphabet’s self-driving car division filed earlier this year. He’s played a central role as a pioneer of autonomous driving technology, but Levandowksi’s history shows a pattern of risk-taking behavior that may have finally caught up to him.
Here’s everything you need to know about Levandowski’s career, beginning with his formative college years at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998.
2002–2003: Levandowski received a bachelor’s (2002) and master’s degree (2003) from UC Berkeley in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.
2001: Along with fellow UC Berkeley students Andrew Schultz and Pierre-Yves Droz, Levandowski founded 510 Systems, an entity which would explore autonomous driving technology, along with robotics.
2004: Levandowski was part of a UC Berkeley graduate student team that participated in the 2004 and 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, where they entered an autonomous motorcycle named “Ghostrider.” The Grand Challenge was a race for driverless vehicles organized by the Pentagon’s research arm. The motorcycle is now on display at The Smithsonian.
He was interviewed by New Atlas at the time and was asked how long he thought it would take to build an autonomous vehicle that could average the same speeds as a traditional vehicle without crashing.
Levandowski: Wow, we can hardly go from point A to point B without destroying the vehicle. It took millions of years of evolution to create the sensors and processing power that humans possess. It will not take as long to synthetically exceed the capabilities in all domains. Making vehicles truly safer under automated control than when human operated will take a long time though — maybe 50 years. It’s hard to say.
2007: Levandowski was hired at Google as a software engineer, and worked on the company’s Street View mapping project. He spoke at the Berkeley-Haas School of Business in 2009 on his time at Google, where he said the Street View team initially didn’t have the resources to make things happen to quickly scale up the project, so they had to improvise.
Levandowski: “We only had this one car that we were driving manually with a GPS camera to take the images. We came to the realization that this one car wasn’t going fast enough and we needed to duplicate it…We were short of money and decided that rental cars were cheap — you can rent them by the month for couple hundred of bucks — so we used rental cars instead. We then built wooden racks to place the cameras on top and then hired people off Craigslist, saying that we needed “professional tourists.” We would pay them each $10 per hour to “tour” and we then pushed this idea forward. With the GPS cameras on top of the cars, we began to take images that we needed. The car rental agencies also got back cars with bald tires and a few dents, but you got to take risks to get the job done.”
2008: While working at Google, Levandoski formed Anthony’s Robots to further experiment with self-driving technology in his free time. On September 7, Levandowski launched the first test in San Francisco of his self-driving Toyota Prius project, named the “PriBot.” The test was a part of an episode of the Discovery Channel show “Prototype This,” where the vehicle was used for a pizza delivery. You can watch the episode of the show here.
The test was relatively successful, minus a scrape on the left side of the car as it drove up the Bay Bridge ramp. The vehicle used a spinning LiDAR laser ranging unit. LiDAR stands for Light Detection And Ranging. The technology uses the principles of radar, but uses laser beams instead of radio waves. LiDAR shoots beams out into an environment, where objects reflect the beams back into the LiDAR unit. The unit can then can measure the time it took for the laser beams to come back and figure out how far away an object is. This technology is critical in determining the distance between objects for a self-driving car to be accident-free.
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Levandowski spoke about the relationship between Google and his self-driving car project. “Google was very supportive, but they absolutely did not want their name associated with a vehicle driving in San Francisco. They were worried about an engineer building a self-driving car that kills someone and it gets back to Google.”
2009: After the successful test of the “PriBot,” Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin began to embrace Levandowski’s self-driving car project and moved him to a secretive new unit of Google called X, dedicated to “moonshot” technologies.
2010: According to testimony from Levandowski’s former collegue Droz, 510 Systems started developing an in-house LiDAR solution. The startup had used third-party vendors, such as Velodyne, and was looking for a more cost-effective alternative.
2011: Google acquired 510 Systems and sister company Anthony’s Robots. Levandowski continued to develop self-driving cars for Google, quietly testing them on the streets of California before the state enacted laws requiring permits.
He also found a lobbyist and got involved in getting laws passed in Nevada and California to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles. His backroom lobbying did not endear him to some executives at Google, according to an interview with The Guardian.
Levandowski: “I thought you could just do it yourself. Then I found out that there is a team dedicated to that, a process. Got a little bit in trouble for doing it.”
2014: Levandowski and Google’s self-driving car team unveiled a two-door fully autonomous car without pedals or a steering wheel. A year later, this prototype made the first ever fully self-driving trip in normal traffic on public roads.
According to a court filing, Waymo alleges that Levandowski violated his non-compete clause by being involved in two companies, Odin Wave and Tyto Lidar. Both companies merged in 2014 and were eventually folded into Otto in 2016. At one point, Google was interested in acquiring Tyto Lidar and Levandowski was a part of those talks without disclosing his role with Tyto.
2015: Google reorganizes and its parent company becomes Alphabet. According to the lawsuit, an internet domain name for Levandowski’s new venture, at the time named “280 Systems” was registered in November. The same filing alleges that on December 3, Levandowski searched for instructions on how to access Waymo’s highly confidential design server and accessed the server on December 11. This server holds some of Waymo’s most confidential technical information, including blueprints for key hardware components. Levandowski downloaded over 14,000 files deemed proprietary by the company, which was a download of 9.7 GB. Three days latr, Waymo alleges that Levandowski attached an SD card to the laptop and then reformatted the laptop a few days later.
2016: As the race to build autonomous driving technology heats up, Alphabet spins off its self-driving car project, Waymo, in December. According to a report from Bloomberg, Levandowski was being compensated over $120 million per year to work with the company.
This is all while Waymo alleges that Levandowski confided in some of his colleagues that he planned to “replicate” the self-driving technology at a competitor and tried to recruit fellow colleagues to work with him on the project. Waymo believes Levandowski attended meetings with high-level Uber executives on January 14, 2016. The next day, 280 Systems was officially formed.
On January 27, Levandowski leaves Google. On February 1, Levandowski officially forms Otto. More engineers from Alphabet join Levandowski, where Waymo alleges that these engineers also downloaded proprietary information before leaving the company.
Waymo says that Levandowski received his final multi-million dollar payment from the company in August. Soon after, Uber announced a deal to acquire Levandowski’s Otto project for $680 million.
During the summer, Waymo investigated Levandowski’s exit from the company and found emails in December that gave the company evidence that Uber may have access to its proprietary information.
2017: In February, Waymo files suit against Uber. Uber denied any wrongdoing against Waymo. The court mandated that Uber return the 14,000 files in question. On March 30, Levandowski asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and did not turn over the documents he allegedly stole. Uber’s lawyers claimed that the company didn’t have the documents from Waymo.
On May 12, a federal judge denied Uber’s attempts to move the legal showdown between both companies into private arbitration, which Uber is appealing. The judge also referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office, which may lead to possible criminal prosecution for Levandowski. On May 15, a federal judge barred Levandowski from working on any projects related to LiDAR while the litigation was occurring and ordered Uber to return any stolen documents by May 31. On May 18, Uber’s lawyers told Levandowski that he must comply with the order to return Waymo documents or face possible termination. Such action could be incriminating evidence for Levandowski and Uber.