Meet the Man at the Center of the Silicon Valley Mega-Suit
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this man is the genius behind self-driving cars, and this court case could determine their future.
By James Watkins
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
It’s Silicon Valley’s Battle Royale: a court case with $1.4 billion dollars riding on the outcome and a witness list that includes billionaires Larry Page (co-founder of Google) and Travis Kalanick (founder of Uber). At stake is the future of self-driving cars. And at the center of it all? This being a drama set in Silicon Valley, it’s a smart, rich white dude in jeans and bright-colored sneakers.
Only this smart, rich white dude is pleading the Fifth, choosing not to incriminate himself in the billion-dollar civil suit between his two former employers, Uber and Waymo (the self-driving car spinoff of Google parent company Alphabet). Anthony Levandowski is considered the self-driving car guru, and at the heart of the dispute is an allegation by Waymo that he stole 14,000 files worth of its intellectual property before quitting to start his own company that, months later, was acquired by Uber, which is now trying to make its own self-driving car play. It started when a hardware supplier accidentally forwarded an email to Waymo containing designs for Uber’s radar imaging system — designs that (allegedly) look curiously like Waymo’s top-secret design. What followed? Lawsuit, injunctions, delays, grandstanding, Levandowski’s firing from Uber and … the trial that kicked off on Monday.
The restless 37-year-old is the living embodiment of the Silicon Valley credo — move fast and break things.
Levandowski is not a defendant in the case over theft of trade secrets, but his actions — and those of Uber execs who are alleged to have allowed or encouraged them — will be under the microscope in the coming weeks. And it doesn’t help Uber’s case that Levandowski has a reputation for bending or even ignoring the rules to get ahead. While at Waymo, he lobbied state authorities in Nevada and California for autonomous vehicle regulations, landing him in hot water with his Google bosses whom he didn’t ask for permission, he admitted. Later, while at his startup before it was acquired, he got in trouble for breaking the Nevada state rules he helped write for testing self-driving trucks without a permit. And after his move to Uber, the company caught heat for testing cars without permits in California, again contravening the very rules that Levandowski had a hand in crafting.
It’s this attitude that endeared him to fellow Silicon Valley bad boy Travis Kalanick, the disgraced former CEO of Uber, who this week testified that Levandowski was his “brother from another mother.” The pair met multiple times before Levandowski quit Waymo, while Kalanick was trying to woo him to defect to Uber. Though both men have been forced out of the company, their legacies could still harm it in this case.
But Levandowski stands out in the world of tech for more than being a rebel. The 37-year-old is a 6-foot-7 former crew athlete, and a rare hardware man in the land of software. As a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, he launched an intranet system that netted him $50,000 a year. The next year, he won a national robotics competition with a machine made out of Legos. He also chose to rent out his bedroom and sleep on the living room couch next to a tower of computer servers, according to his friend Randy Miller in a 2013 interview — not for the extra money, but out of sheer commitment to the rough-it-till-you-make-it anarcho-capitalism of the startup scene. In 2015, Levandowski officially registered a religious organization with the IRS called Way of the Future, which apparently aims to “promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.”
“I only do cool shit,” Levandowski told the New Yorker four years ago. After college, in 2004, that “cool shit” was a million-dollar challenge by DARPA to build a vehicle that could travel across the Mojave Desert without human intervention. His team’s two-wheeled creation didn’t complete the journey, but Levandowski became obsessed with the emerging field of self-driving tech — and soon landed a job at Google. There, he pioneered the Google Street View mapping effort, which so impressed Larry Page that the team was allowed to choose their next project. Levandowski had in the meantime built an autonomous Toyota Prius in his own time — the first step in a venture that would eventually become Waymo.
It’s an obsession that became personal for Levandowski in 2012 when his partner, Stefanie Olsen, then nine months pregnant with their son, Alex (the eldest of his two children), had to slam on the brakes while driving. The car behind careened into her Prius at over 30 miles an hour, crushing it “like a tin can,” Olsen later said. Though both she and their unborn baby were unharmed, Levandowski frequently refers to the accident to illustrate how self-driving cars can be much safer than human drivers.
While he was still at Waymo, Levandowski was once quoted as saying, “If you look at my track record, I usually do something for two years and then I want to leave,” before asserting that he was nevertheless in it for the long haul at Google. Sure enough, two years later, he left, telling the New York Times he was “eager to commercialize a self-driving vehicle as quickly as possible.” Today, the restless techie is the living embodiment of the Silicon Valley credo — move fast and break things — and a jury of his peers will soon decide whether this time he moved too fast and broke too many things.
Additional reporting by Libby Coleman.