Travis Kalanick got some vindication in court on Feb. 7.
Under friendly cross-examination by a lawyer for Uber — the ride-hailing company he co-founded and led until it ousted him last June — Kalanick got a chance to present himself as an earnest guy who loved his work, cared about the future and didn’t take illicit shortcuts as he competed aggressively in the race for self-driving cars.
He also got to give his narrative of Uber’s relationship with Alphabet, the Google parent company that was an early investor in Uber and is now, through its Waymo subsidiary, suing it.
In his second day of testimony in the Waymo vs. Uber trade-secrets trial, Kalanick adamantly denied having hired Anthony Levandowski, a former star Waymo engineer, in order to steal self-driving car secrets, as Waymo alleges.
“We hired Anthony because we felt he was incredibly visionary, a very good technologist, and he was also very charming,” Kalanick said.
Although Kalanick said he’d spoken of Levandowski several times as “a brother from another mother,” his feelings now are a bit more complicated.
Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (left) and Anthony Levandowski (right) co-founder of Otto, pose for a photo in the lobby of Uber headquarters, Aug. 18, 2016, in San Francisco. (Tony Avelar/ AP Photo)
“Look, this has been a difficult process,” Kalanick said. “This makes it not as great as what we thought it was.”
“This” is a blockbuster federal lawsuit that has consumed 11 months and millions of dollars, laid bare embarrassing revelations about spy tactics at Uber, and threatens the ride-hailing company’s self-driving car program — which it considers essential to its future.
While Kalanick’s testimony may have helped Uber’s defense, it’s far too soon to call a winner in the bitter case. Later on Feb. 7, the head of a forensic investigations firm gave testimony that was damning to Levandowski, and thus, by implication, Uber.
Kalanick is undoubtedly the star witness for the jury trial, now in its third day in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The other standout witness, Levandowki, is expected to refuse to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. Witnesses testified that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 Waymo files about self-driving cars shortly before he abruptly quit the company, launched a startup and sold it to Uber.
Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven tried hard to rattle Kalanick, reading emails and meeting notes in which he used brash language like, “Cheat codes, find them, use them” and “The golden time is over, it’s war time.”
A subdued Kalanick refused to take the bait, repeatedly sipping on water and answering that he didn’t remember a number of things but that they were possible.
Wearing a dark suit and tie, a contrast to his usual Silicon Valley attire, Kalanick visibly relaxed when Karen Dunn, representing Uber, got up to cross-examine him.
Kalanick portrayed his relationship with Google — now Alphabet — as that of a little brother with a big brother. When Google invested in Uber in summer 2013, co-founder Larry Page picked up Kalanick in a self-driving car. “It was really cool,” he said, describing hopes to partner with Google on a future robot-taxi service.
But a year later, he started hearing rumors that Google wanted to create its own autonomous ride-hailing service. He reached out to the company through its chief legal officer, David Drummond, who then sat on Uber’s board, and asked to chat with Page directly. But when that failed to get traction, Uber raided the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in early 2015 to set up its own robot-car development arm.
A few months later, when Kalanick finally sat down with Page, Uber and Google were more overtly rivals. “Larry was fairly upset with us about us acquiring the CMU team and starting an autonomy unit for ourselves that competed with what they were doing,” Kalanick said. “He was a little angsty and said, ‘Why are you doing my thing?’” Self-driving cars had been an interest of Page’s since he was a student at Stanford.
In fall 2016 Kalanick talked by phone with Page about a flying car partnership, saying he wanted Uber customers to be able to push a button and get a Google flying car. By then, Levandowski and other ex-Googlers were at Uber. Page was upset, saying Uber was taking Google’s intellectual property. “Your people are not your IP,” Kalanick said he responded.
A much less well-known figure, Eric Friedberg, co-founder of forensics firm Stroz Friedberg, was the final witness on Feb. 7. Uber hired his firm in March 2016, two months after Levandowski quit Waymo, to vet its purchase of Otto, Levandowski’s startup. Friedberg testified that Levandowski had a massive amount of Google/Waymo-related information on his laptop and on five discs at his home.
Levandowski told investigators he destroyed the five discs after informing Kalanick about them. Kalanick said he didn’t want to know about Google information and didn’t want it at Uber, according to the Stroz report. He told Levandowski to “do what he needed to do,” which Levandowski took to mean he should destroy the files.