$120 million payouts, massive egos, and prison time: The inside story of Google and Uber’s war to own self-driving-cars

In January 2016, self-driving-car engineer Anthony Levandowski quit Google and went to Uber, where CEO Travis Kalanick was eager to produce his own robo-taxi.
Levandowski had been sidelined at Google in favor of Chris Urmson, his onetime roommate and longtime rival. 
Years of infighting and indecision within Google’s team — much of it centered on Levandowski and Urmson — had left the search giant vulnerable to competitors. But Uber’s own effort was doomed by its own failings.
This story is adapted from Insider senior editor Alex Davies’ new book, “Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car”, which chronicles the messy, chaotic creation of the self-driving industry as we know it today.
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On January 7, 2016, Anthony Levandowski emailed Larry Page to wish him a happy new year and to gripe, once again, about the state of the search giant’s self-driving-car research project.”Chauffeur is broken,” Levandowski wrote, using the code name of the effort he had helped launch. “We’re losing our tech advantage fast.”His team had spent seven years and billions of dollars yet had produced nothing close to a commercial product. He and some comrades thought Chris Urmson, who had won out over Levandowski for control of the team, was too prudent in deploying their tech and blamed him for letting Google’s rivals catch up.The team’s problems, however, went far beyond Urmson’s cautious world view. As the project crept from research toward development, disagreements over how to commercialize their work — along with who would be in charge, and who would cash the biggest bonus — threatened to leave it vulnerable to competitors. 

Two of the team’s founding members, Levandowski and Urmson stood at the center of the struggle. With his knack for launching ambitious projects with remarkable speed and his disregard for how things are usually done, Levandowski epitomized the Silicon Valley disruptor. Urmson was more the academic, unwilling to launch something he couldn’t be sure was totally safe. Google’s leaders thought each offered a valuable skill set. But this was not Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” overcoming their differences to help preserve the Union and win the Civil War. It was more like that war itself, where every topic of discussion could be turned into a debate, an argument, a swear-laden shouting match.

Core members of Google’s self-driving team included Chris Urmson, far left, and Levandowski, far right.

Courtesy of David Goldwater

Levandowski, Urmson, and their teammates managed to find casus belli in the least important places, like what sorts of buttons the car should have. Some wanted two buttons: green to engage the system, red to disengage. Others thought it would be simpler to have just one for both on and off. They argued over whether they should add new buttons, or repurpose those already in the car. They argued over how to display the speed the driver set for the vehicle, whether as the absolute number (say, 70 mph) or as an offset to the speed limit (65 + 5).”We argued about the dumbest things and wasted so much time,” Chauffeur engineer Don Burnette said in an interview. “How impactful or meaningful was that button discussion in retrospect? It was a complete waste of time.”Time they didn’t have. By 2016, Uber’s self-driving research team was hot on Google’s tail, and CEO Travis Kalanick was desperate to close the gap. 

On January 27, Levandowski emailed Page again. “I want to be in the driver seat, not the passenger seat, and right now [it] feels like I’m in the trunk,” he wrote. He was striking out on his own, he said, with a self-driving-truck outfit. What he didn’t say was that Uber had already agreed to buy his startup, and that in a few months, he’d be running Kalanick’s self-driving effort — with disastrous consequences. When Urmson heard the news later that day, he showed no hint of hesitation. He marched Levandowski to his desk and had him pack up his things. He then led the 6’6″ engineer out of the self-driving office and over to the “public” side of the building and put him in a conference room. Then he called the human-resources department to come deal with the details of the resignation of the man who had been, by turns, his competitor, his teammate, his roommate, and his chief rival in a world they had helped create.This feature story is adapted from Insider senior editor Alex Davies’ new book, “Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car”. Davies interviewed more than 120 people and spent years charting the messy evolution of the self-driving car industry, a story filled with technological breakthroughs, trade secret thievery, stupid t-shirts, and more.