Donald Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 143 Americans on his last day as President, including Anthony Levandowski.
Levandowski is one of, and one of the youngest, foundational participants in the self-driving car industry. He was there from the start, at the original DARPA Grand Challenge, with an autonomous motorcycle called Ghost Rider.
The motorcycle fell over almost immediately, but Levandowski’s career in the industry was just beginning. He joined Sebastian Thrun at Google, working first on Google Maps and then later on the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Eventually he left to found his own start-up, Otto, which is where the trouble began.
Otto didn’t last long as a stand-alone company before it was acquired by Uber for hundreds of millions of dollars. Shortly thereafter, Google sued Uber, claiming that Levandowski had stolen tens of thousands of documents from the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Google believed that IP was illegally benefitting Otto, and which was now owned by Uber.
These events intersected lightly with my own history in the self-driving car ecosystem. I joined Udacity in the summer of 2016, working with Sebastian Thrun to build the Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree Program. Sebastian quickly introduced me to Otto, whose engineers offered to help teach the program.
I only met Levandowski briefly, but when the lawsuit hit a few months later, it was surreal to find myself connected, however tangentially, to the drama.
The Google-Uber lawsuit ended with a massive settlement from Uber to Google, and led to Levandowski pleading guilty of downloading a project tracking spreadsheet from his job at Google. According to Wikipedia, “Levandowski admitted to accessing the document about one month after leaving Google.”
I never could figure out whether Levandowski was really guilty, and if he was, whether it even mattered. Co-mingling personal computers and phones with cloud emails and information presumably leads to enormous amounts of data downloaded on most corporate employees’ personal devices. Often, we don’t even know that this is happening — the emails and documents get downloaded in the background. When we do load and review something, it’s not always clear whether that information existed locally on personal device, or is stored in the cloud.
And if the worst thing Levandowski did was look at a project planning spreadsheet a month after he left a job, that seems negligible.
But it did cost Levandowski hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as jail time.
There are many more worthy recipients and potential recipients of mercy than a brilliant engineer who made and then lost a fortune, and is young enough and brilliant enough to make it all again. But neither do I begrudge Levandowski the pardon. Frankly, I’m glad he received it. I only wish that many more people, from all walks of life, would receive such forgiveness.
The official explanation of the pardon, such as it is, has already been wiped from the White House website, only hours into the next presidential administration. But there’s always the Way Back Machine, which records the justification for posterity.
“President Trump granted a full pardon to Anthony Levandowski. This pardon is strongly supported by James Ramsey, Peter Thiel, Miles Ehrlich, Amy Craig, Michael Ovitz, Palmer Luckey, Ryan Petersen, Ken Goldberg, Mike Jensen, Nate Schimmel, Trae Stephens, Blake Masters, and James Proud, among others. Mr. Levandowski is an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology. Mr. Levandowski pled guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation. Notably, his sentencing judge called him a “brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs.” Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.”