Thursday, March 16, 2017

Remember that time Uber's Kalanick said having autonomous was crucial to the company's very survival? (a deep dive)

Sure you do:
"We're at the very beginning stages of becoming a robotics company," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco in October. "As we move toward the future, autonomy is a pretty critical thing for us. It's existential."
-via c|net, Dec. 2016
I think he chose his words carefully, an existential threat literally threatens the existence of a firm and he has known since at least 2014 that without major breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles Uber could never be worth what they had convinced investors to pay:
"When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away."
-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, May 28, 2014

Combine Kalanick's statements and the corporate culture he created with the fact the central figure in the Waymo lawsuit was in contact with Uber before he left the Alphabet company's autonomous efforts  and even a dull-witted paralegal could make a case for conspiracy,
And that would threaten Uber's existence.

From Bloomberg, March 16:

Fury Road: Did Uber Steal the Driverless Future From Google?
Inside the vicious patent fight over self-driving technology
Travis Kalanick, the chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., says he needs leadership help. He recently dispatched former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate sexual harassment claims against the company. His security team is reviewing a practice known as “Greyballing.” And he’s no longer going to any more meetings with President Trump.

These damage-control initiatives—in response, respectively, to a leaked video in which Kalanick was rude to an Uber driver, a blog post by a former engineer, an admission that the company had been deliberately misleading police, and a customer boycott—were the result of a month’s worth of public-relations disasters. Taken alone, any of these would have been enough to slow down the famously fast-moving ride-hailing company. Taken together, they’ve caused some to question Uber’s viability and Kalanick’s staying power.

But none of these scandals has the potential financial impact of the one Uber has said the least about: a lawsuit from Alphabet Inc.—the parent of Google and Google’s self-driving car division, now called Waymo—over driverless cars. Waymo says Uber is in possession of, and is basing the future of its business on, technology that was stolen by a former employee.

Self-driving technology has become a fixation for Kalanick. Developing a driverless car, he’s often said, is “existential” to Uber. If a competitor managed to get there first, it could easily replicate Uber’s core service (shuttling passengers) without its single largest cost (paying drivers). Over the course of a few weeks in 2015, Kalanick poached 40 researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University robotics lab, one of the country’s top autonomous vehicle research centers. Then, last summer, Uber became the first company to operate a fleet of autonomous taxis, in downtown Pittsburgh. On the day it announced that service, Uber also said it had acquired Otto, a self-driving truck startup founded in January 2016 by a former Google employee, Anthony Levandowski. The 37-year-old engineer was an original member of Google’s car team and a protégé of its creator, Sebastian Thrun.

At Google, Levandowski had been both a brilliant engineer and a divisive manager, with a reputation for flouting corporate norms and skirting rules to get cars on the road as quickly as possible. He was so controversial, according to several former and current employees, that when he was being considered to lead the car team, a group of engineers revolted, causing Alphabet CEO Larry Page to rethink the choice and install a different leader, Chris Urmson.

According to the legal complaint filed on behalf of Google’s driverless car division—as almost everyone at Waymo still refers to it—the company began investigating Levandowski last summer after learning that Uber had paid about $700 million for his months-old company. Google’s suit, filed in a San Francisco federal court, says its investigators uncovered a trove of digital evidence that hint at an unprecedented theft. According to the suit, Levandowski used his company laptop to download 14,000 design files from Google’s car project. He plugged a memory card reader into the laptop and, shortly afterward, wiped all the data from the laptop. The suit also alleges that two other Otto employees took files on their way out the door.

Google seemed content to sit on that information until Dec. 13, when a Google employee received an email from a supplier that was working on components for the lidar sensor in the company’s first production car. Lidar—a portmanteau of “light” and “radar”—is the key component that allows an autonomous vehicle to, essentially, see its surroundings. (It’s also used to build maps.) Off-the-shelf sensors cost up to $80,000 and contain several individual lenses. Under Levandowski, who’d led the lidar team, Google developed a much cheaper version that used a single lens.

Strangely, though, the email’s subject line—“Otto Files”— made reference to Levandowski’s company. According to Google’s suit, the contents of the email, which seemed to have been intended for Uber rather than Google, included a machine drawing of a lidar circuit board that had Otto’s name on it but looked almost identical to Google’s. Two months later, Waymo sued Uber for trade secret theft and patent infringement, seeking damages and an injunction that could seriously impede Uber’s self-driving car program.

At issue is a business that both companies believe will be worth hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars a year. And though both companies like to portray driverless cars as some near-term inevitability, this dispute shows just how messy the race to get there could prove to be.

During new-hire orientation, engineers at Google are frequently told that the company will never sue a former employee for patent infringement. The implication is twofold: first, that Google doesn’t stoop to fighting over patents, though it may employ them to protect itself from people who aren’t in the business of changing the world. (“These patent wars are death,” Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said at an event in 2012, calling patent litigation “bad for innovation.”) And, as an extension of that, if Google sues you over a patent issue, you must have really pissed them off.

After the lawsuit was filed, Uber released a statement characterizing it as “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.” At an all-hands meeting at the company’s Pittsburgh research center,

Levandowski defended Uber’s lidar technology as “clean”—that is, not the product of stolen design documents—and told the company’s engineers that he’d downloaded the files to work from home. Some former colleagues seem to think that even if Levandowski did what Google alleges, he doesn’t deserve to be punished. “Whatever Google may say about him stealing lidar trade secrets, he was the lidar team at Google,” says someone who worked at the company’s driverless car program. “This is like the Swiss patent office suing Einstein for inventing the theory of relativity while he worked there.”

The comparison to Einstein is obviously hyperbolic, but it also captures the foundational role Levandowski played in the development of self-driving cars. Levandowski, 6-foot-6 and relentlessly intense, is as much an entrepreneur as he is an engineer. At 16 he started a web design firm that a former colleague says made him a millionaire by the end of high school. (Levandowski didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.) As a University of California at Berkeley undergraduate, he won a national competition sponsored by Lego—he built a toy robot that could sort Monopoly money....MUCH MORE

"The Uber Bombshell About to Drop"
Alphabet’s Waymo asks judge to block Uber from using self-driving car secrets" (GOOG)
Waymo Comments On Why They're Suing Uber
Uber Is A Cesspit: Google's Waymo Sues Kalanick's Creation--UPDATED
"New Patents Hint That Amazon and Google Each Have Plans to Compete with Uber" (AMZN; GOOG)
Google is spinning off its self-driving car program into a new company called Waymo (GOOG)

And related:
Night of the Long Knives: "Google Vs. Uber in the Rush To Drive You Around, Driverless" (GOOG)
Uber Bids for Nokia Maps Service to Lessen Google Reliance
"Why Uber Has To Start Using Self-Driving Cars"
Uber Throws Tesla Under the Autonomous Bus
Uber to Buy Self-Driving-Truck Company Otto
"Google’s Car People Diaspora" (GOOG)