High-profile exits continue at Uber, star engineer of self-driving initiative fired

Uber said Tuesday that it had fired Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer brought in to lead the company’s self-driving automobile efforts who was accused of stealing trade secrets when he left a job at Google.

business Updated: Jun 01, 2017 11:06 IST
The New York Times
The New York Times
San Fransisco
Uber,self-driving automobile,Google
File photo of Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's self-driving program, speaking about their driverless car in San Francisco.(AP)

Uber said Tuesday that it had fired Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer brought in to lead the company’s self-driving automobile efforts who was accused of stealing trade secrets when he left a job at Google.

What Levandowski did when he quit Google to start his own company, Otto, which was acquired by Uber for nearly $700 million last year, is the key question in a closely watched lawsuit that pits one of the world’s most powerful companies against Uber, a richly financed up and comer.

The stakes are enormous for both businesses. Google was a pioneer in autonomous car technology and has spent nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars on its effort, which is now run through Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. And Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, has said the future of his ride-hailing company, privately valued at nearly $70 billion, hinges on work being done to create cars that can drive themselves.

The dismissal of one of Uber’s most prized technical talents also points to the risks of the star engineering culture that has emerged in Silicon Valley in recent years, leading to giant paydays for a small group of employees.

Uber will also face hardship as a result of the dismissal. Levandowski, who has dedicated his entire professional life to the study and development of robotics and self-driving research, was integral to nearly every component of the company’s autonomous operations.

Eric Meyhofer, a former deputy of Levandowski, will lead the autonomous vehicle project, overseeing hundreds of engineers working in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and soon in Toronto.

Uber has had its share of difficulties in recent months. Last week, the company said it had miscalculated the amount it had been paying drivers in New York, an error that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

Uber has also experienced a string of executives departing, including Jeff Jones, president of the company’s ride-hailing operations, and Amit Singhal, the senior vice president for engineering, who left after accusations of sexual harassment while working at Google were unearthed shortly after he started at Uber.

Uber also said Wednesday that its finance leader, Gautam Gupta, was leaving to join a startup. Uber said it was looking for someone with experience running financial operations for a public company.

This week, Josh Mohrer, a general manager at Uber who had been embroiled in controversy, left to join a venture firm.

First Published: Jun 01, 2017 11:04 IST