Anthony Levandowski is the key player in the unfolding legal fight between his former employer, Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo, and Uber, where he now runs the startup’s self-driving program. To put it lightly, the case has shown the dude has some seriously deep—but, crucially, alleged—conflicts of interest. The latest court documents filed this week by Uber to try and move the case to arbitration rather than a trial add another layer of questions to the story. But the documents only seemed to make his actions in leaving Google for Uber even more suspicious.
To recap, Waymo asserts in a lawsuit that Uber’s autonomous technology was stolen from it by Levandowski, and that he downloaded confidential trade secrets before abruptly leaving the company to start Otto, which was later acquired by Uber.
Levandowski resigned from Google in January 2016; days later he launched the self-driving truck start-up Otto, which newly filed documents show became almost instantly entwined with Uber. Otto was officially acquired that August by Uber for nearly $700 million.
What’s most relevant in the latest filings is perhaps this: Last month, it emerged that Otto had quietly purchased a small company that specializes in the same tech that Uber and Otto’s now accused of stealing from Waymo.
At first, it seemed like a minor development that could poke holes in Waymo’s high-profile case against Uber. Now? It’s more.
The arbitration claim filed last fall by Waymo and entered into federal court this week alleges that Levandowski actually had a stake in that small company, Tyto Lidar, from its inception in 2012—while he was still employed at Google. What’s more, the documents say Levandowski had helped Google investigate whether it should purchase Tyto despite “never [disclosing] a relationship with Tyto and its employees.”
As Waymo put it in the filing, Levandowski’s alleged actions violated Google’s code of conduct, which said he was “prohibited by contract during [his] employment from competing with, or taking any acts disloyal to, Google.”
In other words, if these allegations are true, Levandowski may have been orchestrating his departure and the alleged theft of technology to Uber all along. It’s so brazen it’s brilliant; an act of evil genius.
It also means that Uber’s self-driving future—which CEO Travis Kalanick says is “existential” for the company—may hinge on allegedly stolen technology. If Waymo succeeds, it could prove devastating for the ride-hailing giant.
(Attorneys for Levandowski didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
The weirdest alleged connection Levandowski has to a former competior is with Tyto, so it’s perhaps best to start there.
First There Was Odin Wave
Uber recently moved to push the Waymo suit out of the public eye and into arbitration, particularly by pointing out that Waymo filed an arbitration claim last fall against Levandowski. On Monday, Waymo entered that document into the public domain.
The arbitration filing accuses Levandowski of using “Google’s confidential information regarding the unique skills, experiences and compensation packages of Google employees and contractors to lure them from Google to a new, competing venture, named [Otto].”
But Levandowski’s involvement in competing ventures began far earlier, according to the arbitration filing.
“Google is now informed and believes that, during Levandowski’s tenure at Google, he was involved in competing side businesses, including enterprises known as Odin Wave ... and Tyto Lidar,” the filing states.
Piecing together and corroborating what Waymo discloses in the filing is a bit difficult.
Corporation filings with the California Secretary of State don’t list an Odin Wave, but records show Tyto Lidar was established on August 9, 2012.
The lack of state corporation records that explicitly mention Odin Wave could be explained by Waymo’s filing, which says that Odin later merged with Tyto. (A spokesperson for the secretary of state couldn’t confirm if that transpired.)
But a small paper trail about Odin Wave does exist.
“The physical address used for Odin Wave was 2201 Dwight Way in Berkeley, California,” Waymo’s filing states. “On information and belief, 2201 Dwight Way is owned by Levandowski.”
Indeed, in October 2012, the City of Berkeley, California, released a study on a proposed redevelopment of a building at 2201 Dwight Way. One of the tenants, according to the study, was Odin Wave. And, as Waymo puts it in the court filing, city records show that Levandowski owned the property.
Unless Levandowski held a huge real estate portfolio or simply failed to keep track of tenants, it seems safe to presume that he knew what Odin was about: building self-driving technology that’s at the core of the Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber.
Two months later, Odin acquired the patent.
Odin’s name emerged again, that July, when a Google employee received an unusual call, according to Waymo’s arbitration filing:
[A] Google hardware vendor contacted a Google employee to inform him that, on information and belief, a company named Odin Wave had just submitted an order for a custom-fabricated part that was similar to a part used by Google in its unique and proprietary laser technology for self-driving vehicles.
Upon receiving the call, Google launched an internal investigation, which revealed what appeared to be “several connections” between Levandowski and Odin Wave—in particular that Levandowski owned the building where Odin was once based.
Levandowski denied having any ownership interest in the company, according to the arbitration filing. A Waymo spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment to elaborate on the court documents.
Then There Was Tyto Lidar
According to Waymo’s arbitration filing, Odin merged with Tyto Lidar in February 2014. That appears to track with records we obtained, however Waymo’s narrative might be off.
A California secretary of state official said it has no record of Odin merging with Tyto, but Tyto’s file denotes a name change occurred at some point. That suggests Odin and Tyto are actually the same company, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that’s the case.
The earliest record of Tyto we could find was a March 1, 2014, Secretary of State filing, which lists Ognen Stojanovski as its manager.
Stojanovski and Levandowski go way back: the two were on the same team in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, the well-known competition for autonomous vehicles. Both have been involved in producing self-driving tech for more than a decade. (The pair can be seen in a photo here.)
This is where things get muddy. A week after Stojanovski’s name appears on the Tyto filing, on March 6, 2014, Odin’s aforementioned LiDAR scanner patent was transferred again to a company called Pouch Holdings, which also listed Stojanovski as its manager in state filings.
The following year, according to Waymo, Google considered purchasing Tyto, and Levandowski was deployed to probe whether it should buy the small company.
“On information and belief, [Levandowksi] was privy to Google’s impression of Tyto’s products and process, including Google’s confidential opinion of Tyto’s technology and the viability of Tyto’s business,” the arbitration filing says. “Throughout this process, Levandowski never disclosed a relationship with Tyto and its employees.”
Got that? Levandowski never disclosed a relationship with Tyto while he was at Waymo, despite that he was on the same team as its founder in the high-profile 2005 DARPA challenge, and, at one point, was the landlord to individuals crafting a LiDAR scanner that ended up with his company.
According to secretary of state records obtained by Jalopnik, Stojanovski’s Pouch Holdings merged with Tyto Lidar in April 2016.
That same month, Pouch transferred the LiDAR scanner patent to Tyto.
And a couple weeks after that, in mid-May, Otto acquired Tyto and its property—thereby officially merging Stojanovski and Levandowski’s brain power once more.
(For what its worth, Alejandro Munoz, the attorney who filed all of these patent assignments, declined to comment when reached by phone on Tuesday.)
But that’s not all.
The messy links between Tyto, Levandowski, and Waymo aside, one of the strangest elements of the saga is how Otto began and how Uber came to acquire it.
Waymo believes Levandowski hatched a plan to launch Otto, in 2015, with Otto co-founder and former Waymo colleague Lior Ron. Waymo’s arbitration filing says that Levandowski began attempts to recruit other Waymo employees for a new venture starting in the summer of 2015.
“[In] approximately August 2015, Levandowski told some Google colleagues that he had been asked to ‘transfer a group of people’ from Google’s self-driving car project to a competing company,” Waymo’s filing states.
In court, Waymo also submitted a declaration from Pierre-Yves Droz, the co-founder of 510 systems (a smaller tech-firm founded also by Levandowski). Droz’s statements pin Levandowski to Uber as early as the summer of 2015.
Droz said he took a walk with Levandowski at Google’s office in early January 2016, and Levandowski “told me specifically that he wanted his new company to have a long-range LiDAR, which is very useful for self-driving truck applications he was interested in.” Levandowski explained that he wanted to “replicate” Waymo’s technology at his new company, according to Droz.
Droz goes on:
This conversation did not surprise me. Mr. Levandowski had previously told me, in or around the summer of 2015, that he had talked with Brian McClendon, an Uber executive involved with their self-driving car project. We were having a dinner at a restaurant near the office, and he told me that it would be nice to create a new self-driving car startup and that Uber would be interested in buying the team responsible for the LiDAR we were developing at Google.
From there, according to the arbitration filing, Levandowski’s internal overtures about his quest to launch a new project grew louder.
“Google is informed and believes that, by January 2016, [Levandowski and Ron] had increased and expanded their solicitations of Google employees,” the filing states. “As part of these efforts, Levandowski made concerted and repeated efforts to solicit most, if not all, of his direct reports to leave Google.”
During that period, Waymo alleges in its suit, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files related to Google’s self-driving car design and usted them to create an autonomous system for Otto.
Levandowski abruptly departed Google in January 2016. Days later, on Feb. 1, he officially formed Otto. From there, he immediately got entwined with Uber.
According to Recode, the same month he started Otto, Levandowski was hired as a consultant to Uber’s self-driving car project. Recode reported that Levandowski was spotted at Uber’s Pittsburgh office in the subsequent weeks.
In other words, Levandowski, within days of leaving a tech giant to launch his own self-driving start-up, agreed to consult a company that’s ostensibly a competitor.
A possible answer to why he’d do that emerged on Tuesday, when Uber revealed in court that, in April 2016, it had signed a confidentiality agreement with Levandowski and Otto over Uber’s “proposed acquisition” of the start-up. This happened right as all of the patent shuffling began with the Tyto/Odin/Pouch-related companies. What’s even more peculiar is that Otto didn’t even officially go public until May 16, 2016.
According to the arbitration filing, by May 18, 2016, Otto officially acquired Tyto. Funny timing.
It’s an extraordinary confluence of events—and it happened just weeks after Levandowski left Google, which compensated him $120 million during the period in which he was allegedly also involved in competing self-driving ventures.
So if Google’s accusations are true, Levandowski double-played Google and scored a new owner for his startup and $120 million in the process.
A couple points are worth stressing here. In a rather candid comment during an interview last fall with Forbes, Levandowski explained—unprompted—that Uber and Otto’s meteoric rise to producing functional autonomous vehicles had nothing to do with Google’s intellectual property.
Q: The question is, Google has been working on this for however many years. You guys (Otto) are a year old or something like that.
A: We started in January. How did we catch up?
We did not steal any Google IP. Just want to make sure, super clear on that. We built everything from scratch and we have all of the logs to make that—just to be super clear.
But this is my fourth autonomy stack. I did the DARPA Grand Challenge.
What isn’t conveyed in the interview is that Otto’s ascendance to self-driving relevancy was seemingly grounded in the efforts of Stojanovski—a longtime acquaintance of Levandowski—and others, nor that Levandowski had links to the company years back.
The connections here are weird and deep, but Uber’s not backing down.
The company said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed that Waymo’s claims were a “baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.” Soon after, Bloomberg reported that Levandowski said at an all-hands meeting that Uber’s autonomous tech is not the product of stolen designs, and he explained to “the company’s engineers that he’d downloaded the files to work from home.”
At a hearing last week, Uber’s attorneys didn’t muster much of an attempt to rebut the claim that Levandowski had in fact downloaded the files.
“I want to leave you with the idea that it is possible, it’s absolutely possible that an employee might take something from company number one and go to to company number two, and it’s possible that information was never used at company number two,” Uber’s attorney, Arturo Gonzalez, said.
If that’s the case, Levandowski did so in spite of the evidence that pins him to competing firms while he was still employed at Google. That could end up being the most interesting revelation in this battle yet.
But, for now, Levandowski’s attorneys have indicated that he plans to plead the Fifth to avoid self-incrimination, potentially making Uber’s defense far more difficult to mount.
A hearing is scheduled early next month on Waymo’s motion for an injunction, which would prevent Uber from using the allegedly stolen tech designs.
Update: This is slightly a bit in the weeds. After this story was published, we obtained documents from the California Secretary of State that confirmed Odin and Tyto were, as we reported, one entity—not two separate entities that later merged, as Waymo puts it in the arbitration complaint.
This doesn’t change the thrust of the factual allegations in the case, but it clarifies a few things: In 2012, Levandowski was the landlord of a building that was occupied by his friend, Stojanovski, who’s listed in an August 16, 2012 document as the manager of Odin. That wasn’t clear before. It also links Stojanovski to the bevy of transfers of the LiDAR scanner patent that now belongs to Uber, something that also wasn’t clear based on Waymo’s filing alone. Lastly, it clarifies that, when a Google hardware vendor allegedly received a call in mid-2013 from a company named Odin Wave for a “custom-fabricated part” used in Google’s self-driving tech, that call was coming from Stojanovski’s firm. That wasn’t known, either.
Odin changed its name to Tyto Lidar on Feb. 7, 2014, according to the documents.
I’ve asked Waymo for comment to elaborate on why it suggested in the complaint that Odin and Tyto were two separate entities, and if it was aware that Stojanovski was involved with Odin since its inception.
Do you anything about Uber, Waymo, or any companies from the twisted web of autonomous driving firms linked to them? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Signal here.