Uber, as we’ve noted, is not having a good year. Since we recounted the company’s woes in in late April, it’s added a federal criminal probe, a lost back wages lawsuit and a new lawsuit over its surge pricing. And now, a day after an embarrassing new profile arrived in New York magazine, the company has yet another firing to deal with, this time its key engineer for its self driving car.
The engineer in question is Anthony Levandowski, best known to this point for forcing Uber to relocate its self-driving car program after a bizarre spat with the California DMV, and for his equally unusual behavior in the lawsuit between Uber and Waymo. The suit claims that Uber stole intellectual property from Waymo, a Google subsidiary, in its quest to build the perfect self-driving car. The case is murky and lacks a smoking gun, but Levandowski has been invoking his Fifth Amendment rights anyway, making an already dramatic suit much more intense.
It appears that, at least on paper, Levandowski’s behavior during the suit was what got him fired. He’s been squabbling with both Google and Uber over providing documents and information. But it seems likely this has been coming for a long, long time, especially as Uber’s self-driving car has faced technical troubles as well as legal ones. In the New York magazine profile, telling his coworkers he was glad that Uber didn’t have “the first death” due to self-driving vehicles. In fact, Levandowski is the focus of a rather damning section of the piece.
Last summer, after a man died in a Tesla that was using the car’s Autopilot system, which allows for autonomous driving on highways, Levandowski told several Uber engineers that they were not pushing aggressively enough. “I’m pissed we didn’t have the first death,” Levandowski said, according to a person familiar with the conversation. (Levandowski denies saying this.)
Levandowski’s firing is more than just your typical corporate shakeup. Uber has insisted for years that it needs to be first to the market with self-driving cars, or the company will be at risk. That Uber has dismissed the key person in a program they’ve argued has to happen, despite skepticism about the future of self-driving cars in general, will likely damage a company already staring down a host of problems.
(via New York Times)