Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"The Uber Bombshell About to Drop"

This is conjecture based on the filings but as Marc Andreessen used to say: "Big if true".
From Daniel with Music via Digg:

If you’ve been following tech news over the last few weeks, you have probably seen several stories about Uber, all negative (bar this one about flying cars). I suspect that what is coming next will prove to be a far bigger story than all of the other incidents so far.
N.B. all of this article is sourced from filings and allegations that Alphabet has made, as well as reading between the lines. Uber will probably contest these claims in court.
In the last few weeks Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber. Alphabet and Waymo (Alphabet’s self-driving car company) allege that Anthony Levandowski, an ex-Waymo manager, stole confidential and proprietary information from Waymo, then used it in his own self-driving truck startup, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, so the suit was filed against Uber, not Otto.
This alone is a fairly explosive claim, but the subtext of Alphabet’s filing is an even bigger bombshell. Reading between the lines, (in my opinion) Alphabet is implying that Mr Levandowski arranged with Uber to:
  1. Steal LiDAR and other self-driving component designs from Waymo
  2. Start Otto as a plausible corporate vehicle for developing the self-driving technology
  3. Acquire Otto for $680 million
Below, I’ll present the timeline of events, my interpretation, and some speculation on a possible (bad) outcome for Uber. The timeline references section numbers from Waymo’s amended filing, so you can read the full context yourself. You can also read the original filing.

Timeline of events
The main timeline of important events is as follows:
  • Summer 2015 - Anthony Levandowski told Pierre-Yves Droz, a colleague at Waymo, that he had talked with an Uber executive about forming a self-driving car startup and that Uber would be interested in buying that startup. (Droz 28)
  • November 17, 2015 - Levandowski registers a domain for 280 Systems, the company that would later become Otto. 280systems.com can be linked to a public email sent February 4, 2016 from someone with a 280systems.com email address looking to do testing of a semi truck with “specialized equipment”. (Filing 41)
  • December 3, 2015 - Mr Levandowski searched the Alphabet intranet for instructions on how to access Waymo’s design server on his work laptop. Based on Gary Brown’s deposition (a Google forensic security engineer) this was an SVN server. (Brown 15)
  • December 11, 2015 - Anthony Levandowski installed TortoiseSVN and downloaded 9.7 GB of data from the SVN repository. (Brown 17)
  • December 14, 2015 - A USB card reader was attached to the laptop for eight hours. Google doesn’t appear to have logged what the laptop did over that time, but the implication is that data was copied from the laptop to a memory card. (Brown 18)
  • December 18, 2015 - Levandowski reformatted his work laptop from Windows to Goobuntu (Google’s custom version of Ubuntu). This laptop wasn’t used again after December 21. To be fair, it was only used three times between March and November 2015. Presumably, he was still doing work during this time, just on another computer? (Brown 19, 20)
  • January 4, 2016 - Levandowski downloaded five confidential technical Waymo documents from Google Drive to a personal device. (Brown 22)
  • January 5, 2016 - Levandowski took a walk with Droz. In Pierre-Yves’ deposition, he claims that Levandowski “told him that he planned to ‘replicate’ Waymo’s technology at a new company he was forming.” (Droz 27)
  • January 11, 2016 - Levandowski downloads another file from Google Drive relating to Waymo’s self-driving car development schedule and timeline. (Brown 23)
  • January 14, 2016 - Levandowski was seen meeting at Uber’s headquarters and the news travelled back to Droz. Droz asked Levandowski about this, and he admitted he had met with Uber and was looking for investors for his new company. (Droz 29, Filing 48)
  • January 15, 2016 - Levandowski officially forms 280 Systems (in stealth mode). Note that this was one day after his meeting with Uber. (Filing 49)
  • January 27, 2016 - Levandowski resigns from Waymo without notice. (Filing 49)
  • February 1, 2016 - Levandowski forms Otto Trucking (this is also in stealth mode). (Filing 49)
  • Spring (March-May) 2016 - “Kalanick began courting Levandowski this spring, broaching the possibility of an acquisition … The two men would leave their offices separately—to avoid being seen by employees, the press, or competitors.” - Bloomberg. Update: I forgot about this article, but was reminded by hammock on Hacker News.
  • May 17, 2016 - Otto launches out of stealth mode. As far as I can tell, they never took on any venture funding, instead self-funding (emphasis mine):
    Many of Otto’s founders have done well for themselves over the years, and it shows: the company is entirely self-funded right now without any external investment. (In the wake of the reported $1 billion Cruise Automation sale to General Motors, I ask Ron if the plan is to get acquired, but he’s insistent that they’re focused on bringing a product to market.) Even George Hotz’s scrappy upstart Comma.ai has recently taken on venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz. - The Verge
    In the photo for their announcement I count 35 people. By the time Otto was acquired, they had 91 employees. This seems like a lot of salary commitment to take on via self-funding by Otto’s four co-founders (all ex-Google). On the other hand, depending on the incentive pay they received at Google, they may have had plenty to cover several years of salaries between them.
  • August 2016 - Levandowski received his final multi-million dollar payment from Google (presumably a deferred bonus?). (Filing 55)
  • August 19, 2016 - Shortly after the final payment was awarded, Uber announced a deal to acquire Otto for $680 million. (Filing 55)
  • Summer 2016 - Levandowski’s sudden resignation, Otto’s quick launch, and Uber’s subsequent acquisition of Otto caused Waymo to suspect that their IP had been misused. Waymo investigated this and discovered Levandowski’s actions prior to leaving. (Filing 57)
  • December 13, 2016 - A Waymo employee was accidentally copied on an email from one of its LiDAR-component vendors titled OTTO FILES. The email contained a drawing of what appeared to be an Otto circuit board that resembled Waymo’s LiDAR board and shared several unique characteristics with it. (Filing 59)
  • December 2016 to February 2017 - Waymo tried to obtain further information on whether Uber was using their LiDAR designs. This is also known as “Getting your ducks in a row”. (Filing 60)
  • February 9, 2017 - A Nevada public records request turned up a filing Otto/Uber made that they were using an “in-house custom built 64-laser” LiDAR system. This was enough to confirm to Waymo that they Uber was using a LiDAR system with the same characteristics as Waymo’s. (Filing 61)
  • February 23, 2017 - Alphabet makes their first filing against Uber.
  • March 10, 2017 - Alphabet amends their filing, and asks for an injunction against Uber’s self-driving car program.
Implications From Waymo’s filings, it seems that they have Levandowski dead to rights on stealing their LiDAR designs. That alone should be enough to bring Uber’s self-driving car program to a halt and cause some big problems for Levandowski. California’s Trade Secrets law is weaker than other states, but if successful, Waymo will be able to seek an injunction, damages, and attorney’s fees. Because all law is securities law, the SEC may also be able to bring a case against Uber (similarly to their case against Theranos)....

Some of the backstory: 
March 2017 
"Alphabet’s Waymo asks judge to block Uber from using self-driving car secrets" (GOOG)
Feb 2017 
Waymo Comments On Why They're Suing Uber
Feb 2017 
Uber Is A Cesspit: Google's Waymo Sues Kalanick's Creation--UPDATED
Jan 2017 
"New Patents Hint That Amazon and Google Each Have Plans to Compete with Uber" (AMZN; GOOG)
Dec 2016 
"Google’s Car People Diaspora" (GOOG)
Dec 2016 
Google is spinning off its self-driving car program into a new company called Waymo (GOOG)
Dec 2016 
Uber Throws Tesla Under the Autonomous Bus
Dec 2016
Uber Tells California It Won't Be Applying For An Autonomous Driving Permit, California Tells Uber The State's Attorney General Will Be In Touch
How Otto Defied Nevada and Scored a $680 Million Payout from Uber
The engineer who helped craft Nevada’s self-driving car regulations also ended up blowing past them. 

August 2016 
Uber to Buy Self-Driving-Truck Company Otto
May 2016
"Otto Self-Driving Truck Company Wants to Replace Teamsters"