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Uber fires star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, at the center of self-driving car battle

May 30, 2017 6:52 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, the star engineer at the center of its high-stakes legal fight over driverless cars.

Levandowski, the 37-year-old former chief of Uber’s self-driving program, was given notice on Friday, according to a termination letter obtained by the Washington Post. He was let go after failing to comply with a judge’s request that he turn over thousands of documents that he is accused of stealing from Google's parent company, where he had worked as a senior engineer.

Uber also said that he had broken the terms of his employment with the company. Under those terms, Levandowski promised that he wasn’t disclosing any trade secrets or proprietary information from his previous employer when he came on board.

The firing is the latest twist in a case that has pit two Silicon Valley giants against one another as they battle over the future of transportation. Levandowski was a senior engineer in Google’s self-driving car program, which began building self-driving cars in 2009 and is now called Waymo.

Uber began developing self-driving cars roughly two years ago, an effort that Kalanick has called "existential" to the company's future because it could dramatically lower labor costs. Kalanick hired the former Google engineer to run Uber's driverless program last summer, after acquiring Levandowski's months-old self-driving truck startup, Otto.

The news of Levandowski's firing represents Uber's latest effort to extract itself from a series of escalating controversies that have consumed and shaken chief executive Travis Kalanick. The company has faced a barrage of negative press this year in the wake of high-profile sexual harassment complaints and a slew of executive departures. Kalanick this weekend also faced personal tragedy -- his mother was killed and his father seriously injured in a boating accident.

The move to terminate Levandowski represents a shift in Uber's legal strategy. Until now the company had defended and protected him, even as a district judge became increasingly frustrated with his decision to not turn over key documents.

Levandowski is not personally being sued, and the legal case hinges on whether Waymo can prove that Uber was either aware or colluded with Levandowski in stealing the documents.

Levandowski is accused of downloading 14,000 documents from his Google computers onto a hard drive and then uploading them into his personal computer. He has refused to share the documents, citing his fifth amendment rights to protect himself from self-incrimination.

Uber has also refused to share several thousand additional documents with the court, citing confidentiality rules between attorneys and their clients. It was unclear whether Uber would now share that information. Outside experts have said that the volume of documents being withheld was highly unusual, and Uber's decision to withhold them had irritated the judge.

Levandowski’s lawyers are expected to argue that a person cannot be fired for asserting their Fifth Amendment rights, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As a condition of his hiring, Levandowski was awarded more than $250 million in Uber stock. It was unclear whether he would be able to keep his compensation package going forward.


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