Uber’s new CEO could probably win at 10 dimensional chess


The courtroom has been cleared, the lights are off in the spillover room on the 19th floor and the initial takes are in on the Uber vs. Waymo trial.

Uber will give Alphabet, the parent company of both Waymo and the search giant Google, some $244 million worth of stock, and agree to ensure that no Waymo intellectual property will make its way into Uber autonomous vehicles.

While Uber has settled, this is hardly a Waymo victory. Indeed, the only person who comes out of this looking like a winner is Uber’s new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi.

For some reporters, Khosrowshahi’s decision to settle was a foregone conclusion, but that was before the trial began and the strategies (such as they were) of the opposing sides became clear.

Once the trial was underway, Waymo’s victory began to look less and less like a foregone conclusion.

Uber’s former chief executive Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski, the incredibly talented and incredibly ambitious technologist whose decision to leave Google’s self-driving car program for Uber set off the lawsuit in the first place, both came out of the proceedings looking appropriately terrible (they acted terribly).

But Waymo did not appear to be making headway with its actual charge that any of the (very likely) allegedly misappropriated technology wound up in Uber’s autonomous vehicle systems.

Beyond the facts of the case, there was the potential for Alphabet’s own executive team to come off looking less-than-stellar when Uber presented its defense.

By settling the case now, Khosrowshahi looks nothing short of magnanimous. His predecessor has been publicly humiliated, along with the former employee whose hiring triggered the case, executives at Alphabet are spared from having to take the stand and answer for whatever mistakes they may have made in handling Levandowski (and his departure), and Uber is only paying $244 million to get out from under the lawsuit. (I know $244 million isn’t chump change, but compared to how bad things were potentially looking at the outset of the trial, the payout is a bargain).

With the settlement Khosrowshahi takes another long stride in moving past the mistakes that have bedeviled Uber almost since its inception — and certainly since it became the ride-sharing juggernaut that wanted to be uber alles under Kalanick’s increasingly tone deaf leadership.

Read the last lines of Khosrowshahi’s statement and you’ll see what I mean.

While I cannot erase the past, I can commit, on behalf of every Uber employee, that we will learn from it, and it will inform our actions going forward. I’ve told Alphabet that the incredible people at Uber ATG are focused on ensuring that our development represents the very best of Uber’s innovation and experience in self-driving technology.

As we change the way we operate and put integrity at the core of every decision we make, we look forward to the great race to build the future. We believe that race should be fair—and one whose ultimate winners are people, cities and our environment.

And the rapprochement between the two firms makes good business sense as well. Uber had a longer way to go with its autonomous vehicle program than it wanted to admit (something that trial documents make very clear) if it was going to catch up with Waymo. Now, there’s at least the potential partnership down the road. And as both companies see Amazon in their rearview mirror, a decision to be best frenemies makes even more sense.

Featured Image: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Aurora will power Byton EV’s autonomous driving features


Aurora, the self-driving startup founded by Google self-driving car project alum Chris Urmson, along with Tesla Autopilot developer Sterling Anderson, CMU robotics expert and Uber vet Drew Bagnell, and a team of industry experts, will be making the autonomous smarts for Byton’s forthcoming electric vehicle. Byton, a startup that had a splashy debut at CES earlier this year.

Byton’s Concept electric SUV is a car with a lot of interesting tech features, aside from its all-electric drive train. The vehicle has a massive, dashboard-covering display that incorporates information readouts, entertainment options and vehicle controls. It’s a screen that seems somewhat ill-suited for the task of paying attention to the road while driving, and the Byton car also has front seats that swivel towards the inside of the vehicle so that those in the front can better interact with those in the back.

Both of those features are more geared toward a future in which autonomous driving is a ready and viable option for Byton owners. The car is aiming for a 2019 starting ship date, by which time it’s possible self-driving features won’t seem such a distant dream. And now we know that Byton has a technology partners on the autonomous driving side of things with the technical know-how to make it an even more realistic expectation.

Aurora, despite officially breaking cover only just last year, is already working with a range of automakers on their autonomous driving technology, including Volkswagen and Hyundai. Aurora CEO Chris Urmson explained that its goals mean it’s happy to work with companies at all stages of development and maturity to help make self-driving a practical reality.

“Our mission is to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safety, quickly and broadly,” he said in n interview. “So for us to have that broad part, it means we have to work with a nudger of great partners, and we’re very fortunate with the folks we have [as partners] to date… this is how we help the business, and we look forward to being able to engage with others in the future.”

For Byton and Aurora, this partnership will kick off with pilot test driving in California sometime soon,  and Byton hopes to eventually tap Aurora with its goal of fielding premium electric consumer vehicles with SAE Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous capabilities.

Aurora as a company is excited about its progress during its first year in operation, and is ramping up staffing and attracting key talent in a very competitive industry thanks to its pedigree and founding team, Urmson tells me.

“It started with a handful of us, a couple in my living room here in California, and a couple in Pittsburgh. We’ve been growing the team, that’s been one of the core focuses of this last year,” he said. “In my previous gig I had the privilege of helping build that program from day one, to a massive organization certainly leading the space, and now with Sterling and Drew, we have the opportunity to build version two of that, and learn from our experience, and build an organization and build a technology that can have a huge impact on the world, and do that quickly and safely.”

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Aurora will power Byton EV’s autonomous driving features


Aurora, the self-driving startup founded by Google self-driving car project alum Chris Urmson, along with Tesla Autopilot developer Sterling Anderson, CMU robotics expert and Uber vet Drew Bagnell, and a team of industry experts, will be making the autonomous smarts for Byton’s forthcoming electric vehicle. Byton, a startup that had a splashy debut at CES earlier this year.

Byton’s Concept electric SUV is a car with a lot of interesting tech features, aside from its all-electric drive train. The vehicle has a massive, dashboard-covering display that incorporates information readouts, entertainment options and vehicle controls. It’s a screen that seems somewhat ill-suited for the task of paying attention to the road while driving, and the Byton car also has front seats that swivel towards the inside of the vehicle so that those in the front can better interact with those in the back.

Both of those features are more geared toward a future in which autonomous driving is a ready and viable option for Byton owners. The car is aiming for a 2019 starting ship date, by which time it’s possible self-driving features won’t seem such a distant dream. And now we know that Byton has a technology partners on the autonomous driving side of things with the technical know-how to make it an even more realistic expectation.

Aurora, despite officially breaking cover only just last year, is already working with a range of automakers on their autonomous driving technology, including Volkswagen and Hyundai. Aurora CEO Chris Urmson explained that its goals mean it’s happy to work with companies at all stages of development and maturity to help make self-driving a practical reality.

“Our mission is to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safety, quickly and broadly,” he said in n interview. “So for us to have that broad part, it means we have to work with a nudger of great partners, and we’re very fortunate with the folks we have [as partners] to date… this is how we help the business, and we look forward to being able to engage with others in the future.”

For Byton and Aurora, this partnership will kick off with pilot test driving in California sometime soon,  and Byton hopes to eventually tap Aurora with its goal of fielding premium electric consumer vehicles with SAE Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous capabilities.

Aurora as a company is excited about its progress during its first year in operation, and is ramping up staffing and attracting key talent in a very competitive industry thanks to its pedigree and founding team, Urmson tells me.

“It started with a handful of us, a couple in my living room here in California, and a couple in Pittsburgh. We’ve been growing the team, that’s been one of the core focuses of this last year,” he said. “In my previous gig I had the privilege of helping build that program from day one, to a massive organization certainly leading the space, and now with Sterling and Drew, we have the opportunity to build version two of that, and learn from our experience, and build an organization and build a technology that can have a huge impact on the world, and do that quickly and safely.”

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Waymo gets to the heart of its case


Attorneys for Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle spinout, are nearing the end of their plaintiffs presentation against Uber in a trial that is likely to have broad ramifications for the common Valley practice of acqui-hiring talent.

The case hinges on whether the jury believes Uber’s assertion that the technology used in its autonomous car project was developed and acquired independently, in spite of the fact that the company almost assuredly received data on the same technology from Alphabet’s servers as part of Uber’s acquisition of Anthony Levandowski’s company Otto.

Today’s courtroom testimony hinged on two critical points. The first was the scope of the due diligence that Uber conducted during its negotiations with Otto. The second was whether the documents that Levandowski brought with him from Google were sufficiently vital in the development of Uber’s autonomous car project to merit damages.

Arguments ranged from the banal to the bizarre with a good portion of the proceedings taken up by a fairly lengthy explanation of Google’s security measures (quite extensive as one would assume). Uber’s defense attorneys responded by noting that one of Waymo’s top engineers carried an early prototype of its proprietary LIDAR technology to Burning Man (okay, maybe not as extensive as one would hope).

We will have more arguments tomorrow from Waymo, and then the complete case from defendant Uber. Whatever the end result, the case has serious implications for the acquisition of startups, and corporate development heads are paying close attention to how to improve processes — particularly around due diligence — to ensure they aren’t caught in an intellectual property thicket like Uber is facing right now.

To recap a bit: Uber allegedly acquired trade secrets from Waymo when it lured one of the founding figures of the autonomous vehicle movement — Anthony Levandowski — away from Google with promise of riches and independence to pursue his own path within Uber’s massive corporate machinery. Uber did wind up acquiring Levandowski — and the company he set up, Otto — along with several of Waymo’s top engineering talent.

It’s clear to most outside observers that Kalanick and Levandowski were doing some shady, shady stuff (indemnifying Otto executives against intellectual property lawsuits; downloading information from Google’s internal servers onto personal computers; wiping Google hardware; sending each other weird clips of the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” speech), but what’s less clear is how much of the technology that Levandowski accessed actually made it into Uber’s autonomous vehicle program.

While the the technical points will determine this trial’s outcome, the broader problem is that Silicon Valley has a very, very, long history of rewarding just this sort of bad behavior. The Bay Area’s tech industry was created with what may be the most famous example of intellectual property “theft” in history: the infamous “traitorous eight” who left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories to form Fairchild Semiconductor and kicked off the modern computing era.

Fast forward a few decades, and you arrive at today’s case, with Waymo suing Uber for the theft of trade secrets related to its self-driving car program.

That Uber — a poster child for startup malfeasance and miscreantism — could manage to cast a pall over Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit is yet another example of how the company’s hyper-aggressive corporate practices have done real damage to the Bay Area’s startup factory. But it’s culture of acquisitions is not unique, and the Valley needs to own up to its history.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

In an alternate universe Lyft may have bought Otto


The Uber vs. Waymo trial took a turn for the the weird today when testimony revealed that Otto, the company whose acquisition is at the center of this lawsuit, was entertaining bids from other suitors.

For a bit of background, Otto is the self-driving truck company that Anthony Levandowski co-founded with Lior Ron. Both men previously worked at Google/Alphabet/Waymo — Levandowski on autonomous vehicles (first at Google X, the company’s moonshot division, and then at Waymo, which was spun out as an independent subsidiary business of Alphabet, Google’s holding company) and Ron at Google Maps.

During proceedings, Ron, Otto’s co-founder with Levandowski revealed that the company was not just in acquisition negotiations with Uber — which eventually acquired the company (the event that triggered this lawsuit) — but was also entertaining bids from Uber’s chief competitor in the U.S. Lyft.

There’re no details on how far along that discussion went with Lyft, but in some alternate universe, there’s a world where Otto was acquired by Lyft — and this lawsuit may never have happened.

In that world, Waymo’s lawyers would be potentially battling it out with Lyft attorneys over the acquisition — and Alphabet could have spent its $1 billion doubling down on Uber’s efforts in ride-sharing.

In an alternate universe Lyft may have bought Otto


The Uber vs. Waymo trial took a turn for the the weird today when testimony revealed that Otto, the company whose acquisition is at the center of this lawsuit, was entertaining bids from other suitors.

For a bit of background, Otto is the self-driving truck company that Anthony Levandowski co-founded with Lior Ron. Both men previously worked at Google/Alphabet/Waymo — Levandowski on autonomous vehicles (first at Google X, the company’s moonshot division, and then at Waymo, which was spun out as an independent subsidiary business of Alphabet, Google’s holding company) and Ron at Google Maps.

During proceedings, Ron, Otto’s co-founder with Levandowski revealed that the company was not just in acquisition negotiations with Uber — which eventually acquired the company (the event that triggered this lawsuit) — but was also entertaining bids from Uber’s chief competitor in the U.S. Lyft.

There’re no details on how far along that discussion went with Lyft, but in some alternate universe, there’s a world where Otto was acquired by Lyft — and this lawsuit may never have happened.

In that world, Waymo’s lawyers would be potentially battling it out with Lyft attorneys over the acquisition — and Alphabet could have spent its $1 billion doubling down on Uber’s efforts in ride-sharing.

California DMV disengagement report reveals self-driving improvements


California’s Department of Motor Vehicles releases an annual report detailing the number of disengagements reported by companies it has licensed to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in the state. This year, the report reveals some interesting details about the progress of some of those companies, including Waymo, GM’s Cruise and Tesla (sort of – you’ll see what I mean).

Cruise’s numbers were very positive, relatively speaking. The company’s reported around a 1400% improvement in performance, with the number of average miles between disengagements climbing from around 300 miles between each to aver 4,600.

To step back, the CA DMV classifies a disengagement as any event where a human safety driver has to assume manual control of the vehicle in order to 1. intervene in the interest of safety, or 2. take control because the AV system has failed or disengaged on its own.

Cruise’s increase sheds light on why the company and GM seem so confident it’ll be able to launch an actual initial commercial service using autonomous vehicles sometime in 2019, a date it revealed it was targeting earlier this year. Jalopnik reported that one of the company’s disengagements wasn’t in the report, but the company noted that the system wasn’t taken over by the driver due to either safety concerns or a system failure in that instance, hence its omission.

Waymo also saw its performance increase based on the year-over-year disengagement data, and the company tells us that has now driven over 4 million miles across the U.S., including 2 million miles driven just last year. Its total disengagement rate dropped to around 0.18 events per 1,000 miles driven, which is about 5,555 miles between disengagements on average – better than Cruise’s rate, though Cruise has claimed its focus on testing in dense urban settings like San Francisco makes its training more challenging.

As for Tesla, it says it didn’t spend any time during the year testing AVs on California roads despite having permission to do so. Tesla’s Autopilot software is considered a Level 2 semi-automated technology, so it doesn’t fall under the category of use covered by the DMV’s AV rules. Tesla also said that the data it gathers from all its cars on the road, combined with AV testing performed “in other settings, including on public roads in various other locations around the world” lets it develop its autonomous tech “more efficiently” than others focused on a few specific spots.