The Engineer in the Google vs. Uber ‘Stolen Tech’ Case Really Was Terrible

Illustration for article titled The Engineer in the Google vs. Uber ‘Stolen Tech’ Case Really Was Terrible
Screenshot: Google (YouTube)

Anthony Levandowski, the controversial former Google engineer at the center of the major lawsuit between Uber and Waymo over trade secrets last year, is the subject of a new extensive, scathing, head-spinning story featured in this month’s New Yorker. One of the many incredible details is an alleged crash where Levandowski took a self-driving car where it wasn’t meant to go, resulting in a Google exec getting severely injured.


The story, written by Pulitzer-winning writer Charles Duhigg, alleges that Levandowski modified the software on Google’s fleet of self-driving cars so that they could be taken on otherwise off-limits routes while another executive involved in the project, Isaac Taylor, was on paternity leave back in 2011.

When Taylor learned about the changes after his return him and Levandowski got in a shouting argument before Levandowski encouraged Taylor to go for a ride in one of the modified cars with him.

While out on the road, the self-driving car got into a situation it couldn’t handle, resulting in a crash. Here’s the details from the New Yorker’s story:

A Google executive recalls witnessing Taylor and Levandowski shouting at each other. Levandowski told Taylor that the only way to show him why his approach was necessary was to take a ride together. The men, both still furious, jumped into a self-driving Prius and headed off.

The car went onto a freeway, where it travelled past an on-ramp. According to people with knowledge of events that day, the Prius accidentally boxed in another vehicle, a Camry. A human driver could easily have handled the situation by slowing down and letting the Camry merge into traffic, but Google’s software wasn’t prepared for this scenario.

The cars continued speeding down the freeway side by side. The Camry’s driver jerked his car onto the right shoulder. Then, apparently trying to avoid a guardrail, he veered to the left; the Camry pinwheeled across the freeway and into the median.

Levandowski, who was acting as the safety driver, swerved hard to avoid colliding with the Camry, causing Taylor to injure his spine so severely that he eventually required multiple surgeries.

So, in a boneheaded attempt to prove himself right, Levandowski seriously injured a coworker and failed to prevent the car he was supposed to be monitoring from the driver’s seat from forcing another motorist off the road.

It gets even worse:

The Prius regained control and turned a corner on the freeway, leaving the Camry behind. Levandowski and Taylor didn’t know how badly damaged the Camry was. They didn’t go back to check on the other driver or to see if anyone else had been hurt. Neither they nor other Google executives made inquiries with the authorities. The police were not informed that a self-driving algorithm had contributed to the accident.


If you think all of that is bad, it gets still worse. Levandowski later emailed video of the incident to his colleagues, calling it an invaluable source of data, according to the New Yorker. He wasn’t punished in any capacity for the incident and allegedly continued taking cars on unapproved routes.

This incident occurred before new California regulations were put in place in 2014 requiring companies to report any incidents that resulted from the operation of a self-driving car on public roads. Google has reported 36 incidents since the new regulations were enforced.


Google later claimed its self-driving car was free of blame in the Camry crash incident, via the New Yorker, instead labeling it “an unfortunate single-car accident in which another car failed to yield to traffic.”

Levandowski, as Jalopnik has reported, was at the center of a lawsuit between Google and Uber when he was accused of stealing the former’s technology when he went to the latter. He was later fired from Uber and the lawsuit was settled with Uber agreeing not to use Google’s tech.


Anyway, the wreck is one of the more troubling aspects of the New Yorker’s story. It also details the events of Waymo’s lawsuit over Levandowski’s hiring at Uber in 2016 alleging he took some of the self-driving unit’s trade secrets with him, the church Levandowski started on the prophecy that artificial intelligence will become god-like, and the egos, back-stabbing and general shittiness of Silicon Valley and its money-hungry geniuses.


Possibly the most troubling part of the New Yorker story is this quote from Levandowski, who, I should remind you, was once in charge of replacing human drivers on the road with something better:

“If it is your job to advance technology, safety cannot be your No. 1 concern,” Levandowski told me. “If it is, you’ll never do anything. It’s always safer to leave the car in the driveway. You’ll never learn from a real mistake.”


And this!

“I told him I wanted to make a hundred million dollars, which seemed like a totally inconceivable figure to me. And—I remember this very clearly—Anthony looked over, with this pitying expression, and said I was thinking way too small. He said he expected to make a billion dollars, at least. This technology was going to change the world, and a billion was the minimum of what he deserved.”


And the story ends on this note:

“The only thing that matters is the future,” he told me after the civil trial was settled. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”


Pfft. Fuck this guy.

Go read the full story over at the New Yorker and try not to scream.

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik


I can understand now why UBER thought he was a good fit