Self-driving car engineers reportedly trying to leave Uber amid alphabet court case.

Self-Driving-Car Experts Are Reportedly Trying to Flee Uber Before Google Kneecaps It in Court

Self-Driving-Car Experts Are Reportedly Trying to Flee Uber Before Google Kneecaps It in Court

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 11 2017 3:44 PM

Self-Driving-Car Experts Are Reportedly Trying to Flee Uber Before Google Kneecaps It in Court

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Waymo CEO John Krafcik and a Waymo autonomous car share the stage at Detroit's North American International Auto Show on January 8, 2017.

Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Uber’s ongoing PR trainwreck got a little uglier on Wednesday. Software engineers employed by the tech juggernaut are reportedly hunting for jobs outside the company, spooked by rock-bottom employee morale and an ongoing litigation fight with Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

The skittish employees are mostly engineers affiliated with Uber’s self-driving technology division, multiple sources told Recode. They feel threatened by a federal patent-infringement lawsuit that Waymo, the in-house autonomous car unit Alphabet created last December, launched in February against Otto, a self-driving trucking company Uber acquired last year in a deal valued at $680 million. Waymo’s suit alleges that Otto founder Anthony Levandowski stole proprietary self-driving technology while working at Google X, Alphabet’s corporate research lab for so-called “moonshot” projects. According to sworn testimony filed by an Alphabet forensic engineer, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents related to lidar, a laser-based, 360-degree radar guidance system Waymo invested in last January to help its self-driving vehicles navigate unpredictable roads. Levandowski left his position heading up Google’s lidar team to start Otto shortly after. Things took a turn for the sinister after Uber bought out Otto just six months after its founding. Apple now alleges that Uber knew about the alleged theft (Levandowski was also a consultant for the ride-hailing company when he left Google) and has filed an injunction to prevent the ride-sharing company from using any of Waymo’s “trade secrets” in its own self-driving vehicles.

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The suit is far from trivial. As Wired reported in February, “Mastering lidar is essential to the technological and commercial success of robo-cars.” Full ownership over the technology is critical to Alphabet’s dreams of selling lidar directly to automakers. And despite technical setbacks, Uber partnered with Volvo as part of its autonomous driving tests in Pittsburgh and Arizona last year and has pledged to deliver a road-ready fully autonomous car by 2021. In January, it made a similar deal with Daimler, the German parent company of Mercedes-Benz.

The Alphabet-Uber showdown may now hinge on what Uber knew and when it knew it. As Recode reported late last month, Judge William H. Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Levandowski’s Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination did not protect him from having to turn over a due diligence document Uber prepared in the course of acquiring Otto. The document could prove Levandowski delivered proprietary lidar technology to Uber with the ride-hailing company’s knowledge. Uber, for its part, has maintained its innocence. It claims that its self-driving vehicles employ lidar technology purchased from Velodyne—a supplier Waymo used to work with before bringing its lidar work in-house—and that autonomous-navigation technology currently under development by Uber engineers predated Levandowski joining the company.

And what about those engineers, anyway? If Judge Alsup rules Alphabet’s favor, Uber employees worry they could be left in the lurch as the company’s chances of developing autonomous vehicles evaporate. Alsup’s decision on the injunction is expected sometime later this week. According to Recode, the injunction could stop the Uber’s development of autonomous vehicles in its tracks. At the very least, it could prevent Uber from using any Waymo technology Levandowski’s alleged skullduggery yielded. Even that minimum ruling could spell disaster for Uber. Although the company remains top dog in the ride-hailing world (in terms of valuation it outclasses its closest competitor, Lyft, by nearly a factor of 10), autonomous vehicles are poised to flip the board. “The world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Business Insider last August. “So if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.”

So far, Uber’s management hasn’t done much to allay its engineers’ fears. Under intense legal scrutiny, Levandowski distanced himself from the company “through the remainder of the Waymo litigation” in late April. His deputy, Eric Meyhofer, reportedly continues to consult closely with him. Faced with a legal question mark, some Uber engineers are apparently scrambling for an escape hatch. At this point, potential defectors appear limited to the company’s self-driving engineering division, rather than its mammoth engineering department writ large (which employed 1,200 engineers as of January 2016). But even if Uber survives the PR fallout and consumer revolt of losing a high-profile courtroom scuffle with Alphabet, a massive exodus of technical talent could sink the company’s chances of staying competitive.

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Even so, nervous employees and corporate litigation are only the latest entries in a bevy of PR nightmares that have beset the popular ride-hailing service of late. As I wrote last week, the Department of Justice has apparently launched a criminal investigation into the San Francisco-based company’s use of software to evade authorities in cities in which it hadn’t been given permission to operate. Uber, currently valued at $70 billion, has also been bleeding top talent: Its president and top communications executive resigned within a month of one another. Those conditions have reportedly poisoned employee morale, compounding self-driving engineers’ wariness about their futures with the company.

What exactly do Uber’s self-driving division engineers do and how might their departure affect the company’s services? I reached out to Uber’s press division by email to ask, but never received a response (Uber declined to comment for Recode’s story as well). But while there’s little information about what life is like for Uber’s self-driving engineers, we do know something about the prevailing culture within the company’s engineering division more generally. Those insights come from a blog post written in February by former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler, which also detailed the persistent sexual harassment she experienced at the hands of co-workers. Its harrowing, infuriating, yet pretty much industry-standard account of her treatment by the company aside, the post offers a good primary-source look inside Uber’s engineering ecosystem. It isn’t a pretty picture. Fowler joined Uber in November 2015 as a site reliability engineer, a software engineer who designs operations functions. Her post documents fairly routine internecine power struggles within the company’s engineering division, which she characterizes as a shameless “game-of-thrones political war.” As she describes it:

It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor's job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: they boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.

Although Fowler lauds Uber employees as “some of the most amazing engineers in the Bay Area,” many couldn’t stick it out in such an environment. “Things didn't get better, and engineers began transferring to the less chaotic engineering organizations” within the company, she writes. “Once I had finished up my projects and saw that things weren't going to change, I also requested a transfer.”

Now, embroiled in a lawsuit whose outcome looks increasingly grave and weighed down by a morose company culture, some restless Uber engineers apparently want out altogether. And who can blame them?

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