Future Tense

Uber Has Axed the Engineer at the Center of Its Legal Blowup With Google Over Self-Driving Cars

Levandowski at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

AFP/Getty Images

Anthony Levandowski, the embattled Uber engineer at the center of a legal showdown with Google, has been fired, according to an internal email sent to employees and reviewed by the New York Times on Tuesday.

Levandowski’s canning stems from several torturous months of litigation between Uber and Alphabet, Google’s holding company, that thrust the engineer’s purported improprieties into the spotlight. Waymo, the self-driving car division that Alphabet spun off into its own corporate entity last December, launched the suit in February. As I wrote earlier this month, Waymo claims that shortly before Levandowski left his position with Google X (Alphabet’s moonshot project research lab), he made off with 14,000 documents’ worth of proprietary navigation technology critical to the development of better autonomous vehicles.

Levandowski’s short tenure with Uber began last July, after the San Francisco-based company acquired Otto—the self-driving truck startup he founded after leaving Google—for a reported $680 million. Levandowski then helmed Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, the company’s internal autonomous car division, until April, when he stepped aside amid PR fallout from the lawsuit. Although he is not named in the suit, Alphabet’s allegation that Uber knew about and abetted Levandowski’s theft has turned him into a pivotal figure in the case.

TechCrunch reports that Levandowski’s firing followed “months of the company attempting to have him comply with and assist its own internal investigation into the matter.” On May 15, the company’s top brass sent Levandowski a brusque letter reminding him that failure to abide by its directives with regard to the case could result in his sacking. The letter read in part:

As a condition of your employment at Uber, you must comply with all of the requirements set forth in this letter. If you do not agree to comply with all of the requirements set forth herein, or if you fail to comply in a material manner, then Uber will take adverse employment action against you, which may include termination of your employment.

But Levandowski had been less than cooperative. Business Insider reported Tuesday that in the weeks before his firing, he invoked the Fifth Amendment and hired outside counsel. That insubordination was apparently enough for Uber to let him go, according to the Times.

On May 11, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for Northern California denied Uber’s motion for private arbitration, guaranteeing that two tech titans’ legal slugfest—which may air the true extent of Levandowski’s alleged misdeeds—will play out in full view of the public.

Even as Uber throws Levandowski under Alphabet’s (self-driving?) bus, the ride-hailing company has resolutely stood by its own innocence. “Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” the company’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, Angela Padilla, wrote in an email to employees quoted by the Times. “Over that same period, Uber has urged Anthony to fully cooperate in helping the court get to the facts and ultimately helping to prove our case.”

Levandowski’s dismissal is another self-inflicted bug on Uber’s proverbial windshield. The company is also facing unwelcome scrutiny following a string of mostly avoidable self-owns, including a criminal probe launched by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month, plucky industry rivals plotting to undermine its profits, and allegations that its heady workplace culture—led by hard-charging CEO Travis Kalanick—failed to discipline employees who regularly harassed their female co-workers.