The going rate for a self-driving car engineer in Silicon Valley is, depending on who you ask, as much as $10 million a head. Google knows as much; it arranged a $120 million bonus for Anthony Levandowski, the ex-Google engineer at the center of the company’s lawsuit with Uber. But new court testimony filed Wednesday offers wonderful insight into the exceedingly high pay that engineers in the field can fetch.
This isn’t to denigrate the engineers or say they shouldn’t be fairly compensated for their work. (Though does anyone really need more than, say, $5 million per year?) But Levandowski’s backstory with Google—whose parent company Alphabet is reportedly worth close to $500 billion—is complicated, riddled with alleged examples of him working on competing self-driving car ventures while still employed by the company.
Some quick background: When Levandowski left the company in January 2016 to launch self-driving truck startup Otto, Google began an internal investigation into the engineer. During the probe, the company discovered a colleague of Levandowski’s received a call back in July 2013 from a hardware vendor, who informed him that “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.”
Odin Wave, records show, was later renamed Tyto Lidar—and Waymo claims Levandowski had backed Tyto from the company’s inception. Tyto was later acquired by Otto, which was later purchased by Uber—and so it has played a supporting, indirect role in the high-profile case.
The employee who received that July 2013 call is Google engineer Pierre Droz. Testimony from Droz was filed by Waymo in court on Wednesday, and he revealed more details about how he discovered Levandowski was involved in the startup.
“The company was operating from his building,” Droz testified. “The company was ... registered by his attorney ... his friend, was leading the company.”
Droz confronted Levandowski about the connections, but he testified that Levandowski denied any involvement.
Anyway, unrelated to all of this, Droz offered up this bit on Levandowski’s time at Google—and it makes you wonder what Google thought it was getting for Levandowski’s salary and his $120 million bonus. (Droz’s remarks are littered with verbal stumbles and filler words, so this is condensed and edited for clarity.)
So for a long time Anthony’s responsibilities were to manage the laser team, but he was rarely at work, and he left a lot of the responsibility of evaluating some people on the team and some of the responsibility [that was] directly his responsibility as [the] people manager on to me or other people on the team. He also had other businesses, other ventures and opportunity with (former Google engineer) Sebastian Thrun.
So, according to Droz, Levandowski rarely came to work and delegated his managerial duties to subordinates, all the while raking in a nine-figure bonus. Maybe he knows this stuff inside and out, perhaps he’s a great manager, but the level of disengagement Droz ascribes Levandowski is hilarious. It’s nuts he got paid this much.
But maybe not. Google CEO Larry Page was asked in a July deposition whether anyone else at the company has received a bonus of $100 million or more.
He couldn’t say.