Anthony Levandowski, a self-driving entrepreneur

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The engineer is at the centre of an Uber-Alphabet battle over autonomous vehicles

Leslie Hook

Anthony Levandowski is a man who loves robots. “I tried to turn people into robots — that didn’t work out so well,” he joked in a speech at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied engineering. “We stuck with Legos instead,” he added, referring to his prizewinning Monopoly money-sorting automaton.

Mr Levandowski is also a man who loves the hustle of being an entrepreneur, and who has spun his talents as an engineer into a series of successful businesses — until his high-profile firing by Uber this week. He has been in the middle of a high-stakes legal battle over autonomous car technology between Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving unit, and Uber, which like Waymo is working to develop a self-driving taxi service.

The case centres on whether Mr Levandowski stole trade secrets from his former employer Waymo and passed them to Uber — which issued him a handsome $250m restricted stock unit grant dated one day after his resignation from Waymo.

An intensely private person, Mr Levandowski has said little about his personal life, though he has occasionally mentioned his young son. Born in Belgium 37 years ago, he moved to California at 14 and soon found himself building the website at his high school. Aged 16 he started his first company, which made enough money building websites before the dotcom bust to enable him to buy a house in the Bay Area the same year. At Berkeley, he tried his hand at several other companies, learnt to code and joined the rowing team, where his 6ft 6in frame helped.

He also developed a deep interest in autonomous vehicles, and in 2004 led a team that entered the Darpa Grand Challenge, a competition staged by the US defence department research agency that was instrumental in developing the technology. The goal was to build a self-driving vehicle that could make it round a 150-mile route in California’s Mojave desert. Most groups entered cars but Mr Levandowski’s team, with a flair for the dramatic, entered a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider.

The Ghostrider failed to complete an autonomous circuit but nevertheless now sits in the Smithsonian museum — an early example of a technology that seemed futuristic at the time and is today at the centre of a global business race to transform the way we travel.

Mr Levandowski joined Google in 2007, working on the self-driving car project. Google was the first company to invest heavily in autonomous vehicles, a field that it leads today.

While at Google, Mr Levandowski continued his entrepreneurial activities on the side: he was closely involved with at least three competing start-ups working on autonomous technology, according to court depositions and an employment arbitration suit from Waymo.

Google initially tolerated, and even rewarded, these projects. The first, a company called 510 Systems that Mr Levandowski co-founded, sold hardware to Google’s self-driving programs while he worked there. It was later acquired by Google. However, at a later start-up, Tyto, Mr Levandowski did not disclose his involvement to Google, even when he participated in discussions about whether Google should acquire the group, according to Waymo’s arbitration suit. Mr Levandowski has not commented on those allegations (the case is being heard in private).

The crux of the civil lawsuit, which alleges Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo, centres on Mr Levandowski’s actions just before co-founding Otto, which works on self-driving trucks.

A few weeks before resigning from Waymo, he downloaded 14,000 documents, which Waymo alleges included designs for Lidar, a type of laser sensor crucial for self-driving cars. Mr Levandowski has asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination in response to a court request to produce the documents. He waited until his bonus awards at Google, worth $120m, were fully vested before resigning in January 2016.

The subsequent romance with Uber was swift. Mr Levandowski and Travis Kalanick, Uber chief executive, began taking long walks across San Francisco — and Mr Levandowski started consulting for Uber. Last August, Uber bought Otto for $680m in equity, a phenomenal sum for a start-up with no product and no outside investors. In Silicon Valley, this figure was seen as being the cost of the talent acquired in the deal.

However, the real price Uber will pay — in lost talent, negative headlines, and legal fees — could be much higher. During Mr Levandowski’s tenure as head of Uber’s self-driving unit, it had several brushes with the law. At one point its driverless taxi pilot program was kicked out of San Francisco by regulators.

Waymo’s civil lawsuit against Uber landed in February, just when Uber was in the middle of a crisis over sexual harassment allegations. Mr Levandowski is not named as a defendant (Uber is the defendant), but his lawyers have repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights, citing the possibility that their client could face criminal charges.

Mr Levandowski’s non-co-operation with the court’s request frustrated Uber’s lawyers and the judge. After he failed to meet an Uber deadline for producing evidence, the company fired him.

That $250m stock grant from Uber, a sum that represented the crazy heights of Silicon Valley’s self-driving craze, is now completely void.

The writer is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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