Two weeks ago, Uber threatened to sack the star engineer at the helm of its self-driving car project for failing to cooperate with a legal investigation. Today, it made good on the threat.
Uber emailed employees on May 30 informing them that it had fired Anthony Levandowski, who joined the company in an acquisition last year. Levandowski is the key figure in an explosive lawsuit brought against Uber by Waymo, the driverless car maker spun out from Google parent company Alphabet. The suit alleges that Levandowski, who used to work for Waymo, conspired with Uber to steal trade secrets from his former employer.
According to Uber, Levandowski was let go after failing to meet a deadline to comply with the court’s investigation into his alleged theft of 14,000 confidential files from Waymo. Uber said it had pressed Levandowski to comply with an internal investigation for months and would not wait for the issue to wind its way through the judicial system.
Levandowski’s termination brings an abrupt end to his 10-month stint at the company, which acquired his driverless trucking startup, Otto, in August 2016 for $680 million. Uber put him in charge of its self-driving efforts, and made him a direct report to CEO Travis Kalanick.
The next several months were tumultuous. In September, a nervous-looking Levandowski presided over the the public debut of Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. In December, one of Uber’s autonomous Volvo SUVs was caught on film running a red light in San Francisco. That same day, the company had started taking passengers in its self-driving cars despite lacking a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The move was straight out of Levandowski’s playbook—the engineer had brazenly defied Nevada regulators to film an Otto test drive in May 2016. In a blog post announcing the unauthorized San Francisco launch, Levandowski acknowledged that Uber had failed to obtain the proper testing permit from the California DMV but said it didn’t believe one was necessary. A week later, Uber shut down its San Francisco pilot and carted its driverless fleet off to Arizona.
Throughout the legal proceedings with Waymo, Levandowski has repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights, which protect against self-incrimination. Levandowski taken the Fifth to keep from saying whether he took Waymo’s files, whether Uber encouraged him to steal trade secrets, and anything relating to Uber’s lidar technology, an imaging system used in autonomous vehicles.
Firing Levandowski won’t necessarily help Waymo or the court get the information it’s looking for. But it may have been a necessary step after William Alsup, the federal judge overseeing the case, partly granted an injunction that Waymo had sought against Uber and instructed Uber to do whatever it could to ensure compliance, even if that meant firing Levandowski. In a letter to Levandowski on May 15, Uber general counsel Sally Yoo told him he must comply with the court’s requirements as a condition of his employment.
“While we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the Court’s Order requires us to make these demands of you,” Yoo wrote. “Footnote 9 of the Order specifically states that ‘in complying with this order, Uber has no excuse under the Fifth Amendment to pull any punches as to Levandowski.’”