Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber has been revealing, to say the least. Now Uber has filed a series of texts between former CEO Travis Kalanick and the company’s former head of self-driving Anthony Levandowski that shed some light on the duo’s dynamic as well as their priorities.
After reading the texts, it’s hard not come away with one big thing: Kalanick and Levandowski were very interested — if not obsessed — with what their potential competitors in the self-driving industry were doing.
Specifically, Levandowski and Kalanick spent a good chunk of their time discussing Google as well as Tesla.
Remember, Alphabet is suing Uber for trade secret misappropriation, alleging that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files from Alphabet and brought them to Uber. While Kalanick conceded in his deposition that Levandowski admitted to downloading those files to use when he worked from home, Uber says the files never made it to the company’s servers.
It’s not exactly a shock that these two people — known to be hypercompetitive — or anyone in the self-driving world would be keeping a close eye on potential rivals. But it is interesting to see some of the tactics Levandowski suggested they employ to, for instance, counter Tesla.
In one text dated Sept. 22, 2016, Levandowski suggested that they create a Twitter account called “@FakeTesla” to dispute things Tesla CEO Elon Musk said about autonomous technology.
Yo! I’m back at 80%, super pumped … we’ve got to start calling Elon on his shit. I’m not on social media but let’s start “faketesla” and start giving physics lessons about stupid shit Elon says like this: “we do not anticipate using lidar. Just to make it clear, lidar essentially is active photon generation in the visible spectrum — radar is active photon generation in essentially the radio spectrum. But lidar doesn’t penetrate intrusions so it does not penetrate rain, fog, dust and snow, whereas a radar does. Radar also bounces and lidar doesn’t bounce very well. You can’t do the “look in front of the car in front of you” thing. So I think the obvious thing is to use radar and not use lidar.”“
The photons stop acting like photons at 77Ghz we at least need the geeks on our side and start calling the BS out. Any objections?
It’s unclear what Kalanick’s response was, as it doesn’t appear that all the texts have been included. Tesla declined to comment.
Just days before that, Levandowski says Musk was lying about how many miles Tesla has driven without incidents and shared this link with Kalanick.
Watch first 45seconds … Tesla crash in January which implies Elon is lying about millions of miles without incident. We should have LDP on tesla just to catch all the crashes that are going on. Got this from ford who’s debating call him out on his shit
Levandowski in particular mentions Tesla a number of times, saying last October that he was meeting with Tesla people to “get more info.” That was on Oct. 19, when Tesla announced that all its cars would be produced with hardware that will eventually enable fully self-driving capabilities.
“I’m still with the tesla guys and will try to get more info,” Levandowski texted Kalanick.
(Levandowski was at a dinner with 80 or so industry representatives and regulators, including Tesla’s former head of Autopilot, Sterling Anderson. Other attendees included Paul Hemmersbaugh from General Motors; Stefan Heck, CEO of auto-tech startup Nauto; and James Kuffner of the Toyota Research Institute.)
The preoccupation with Tesla persisted throughout his conversation with Kalanick. Levandowski shares a number of articles on Tesla. One details the company’s plans to build self-driving trucks, which would directly compete with Levandowski’s company, Otto. Another was about a Tesla crashing.
But Levandowski and Kalanick’s obsession didn’t end there. Naturally, both were keen on keeping tabs on Levandowski’s former employer, Google (which is also — adding more complexity to the situation — an Uber investor).
In one text, Levandowski expresses his concern over Google integrating its mapping service Waze into all cars with Android Auto.
“This scares the shit out of me,” he wrote, linking to this article.
Separately, Kalanick and Levandowski talked about someone they refer to as “JK.” Kalanick said JK agreed to meet him, and Levandowski said to ask him about Waze and self-driving cars. Uber could not provide clarity on who JK is, but based on context, it appears they are referring to John Krafcik, the CEO of Alphabet’s self-driving arm, Waymo.
The conversation occurred a few months before Uber announced it was acquiring Otto in August 2016, but three months after Levandowski left Alphabet and founded Otto.
The conversation, as is included in the filing, reads:
5/20/2016: Kalanick: FYI, jk agreed to meet
5/20/2016: Kalanick: Super quick response
5/20/2016: Kalanick: Which is saying something
5/25/2016: Levandowski: Ask him about waze and self driving cars
5/25/2016: Levandowski: You should get a demo too
The company as a whole was keeping close tabs on Google.
At the end of October, Uber’s head of global expansion Austin Geidt texted Kalanick, saying she had heard that a local Phoenix news organization was talking to Google about something related to autonomous developments.
“The station is hearing google out today on what they’re pitching but the person now said doesn’t think it’s next week thank god but coming up,” Geidt wrote. “After they meet will try and get more on timing which is everything, but sound like next week isn’t right so we might have some time.”
As Recode first reported, Uber was preparing to launch its own self-driving pilot in Phoenix around the same time it rolled out its first set of semi-autonomous cars in Pittsburgh. Uber eventually launched in Phoenix after it was forced out of San Francisco due to regulatory hurdles.
Winning against Google was a theme that came up a number of times. Quoting from a newspaper review of self-driving cars, which appears to be this article, Levandowski texted, “best quote so far.”
“In some ways, Uber’s self-driving car works better than Google’s. Having now tested out both, I can say firsthand that Uber’s car is better at accelerating and braking like a real human being.”
There were, of course, mentions of other competitors — General Motors, self-driving startup NuTonomy and Lyft.
Interestingly, in December 2016, Levandowski introduced Kalanick to David Estrada. It appears that Estrada was the former vice president of government relations at Lyft, and before that was a legal director at Google X — where Alphabet’s self-driving arm operated until recently, before it spun out as Waymo.
The conversation included in the texts are fairly innocuous, as Estrada and Kalanick continued their discussion over the phone.
We’ve reached out to Estrada for clarity.
Do you have an unusual story to tell? E-mail email@example.com