On January 7, 2016, Anthony Levandowski emailed Larry Page to wish him a happy new year and to pitch him on a new approach to 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.” The Google founder and Alphabet CEO was used to Levandowski’s griping. Since he had pushed for control of the team and been rejected a few years earlier, Levandowski had been sidelined, and made a habit of going over his bosses’ heads to complain directly to Page. But the engineer had a point. His team had spent seven years and billions of dollars yet had produced nothing close to a commercial product. He and some comrades didn’t deny Chris Urmson, who won out over Levandowski for control of the team, was a terrific roboticist. But they thought him too cautious in deploying their tech and blamed him for letting Google’s rivals catch up.
In his email, later revealed amid the Waymo v. Uber self-driving lawsuit, Levandowski floated the idea of starting a “Team Mac,” a callback to a bit of Silicon Valley lore: In the early 1980s, Apple was working on a new PC to be called the Lisa, but development was slow, the price tag was approaching $10,000, and IBM was dominating the personal-computer market. Steve Jobs wanted to make a much cheaper and superior product. While the main team kept going with the Lisa — which turned out to be a flop — he put a few employees to work on what became the Macintosh, one of the most successful computers of all time. Levandowski, known for his ability to launch ambitious projects with remarkable speed, thought he could do something similar within Google — just not within Chauffeur. The idea went nowhere.
This story is adapted from Insider senior editor Alex Davies’ new book, “Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car,” out January 5 from Simon & Schuster.
Simon & Schuster
A few weeks later, on January 27, Levandowski emailed Page again, saying “there’s just too much BS,” with Urmson and other Chauffeur leaders.
“I want to be in the driver seat, not the passenger seat, and right now [it] feels like I’m in the trunk,” Levandowski wrote. He was striking out on his own, he said, with a self-driving-truck outfit.
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 over the past dozen years been his competitor, his teammate, his roommate, and his chief rival in a world they had helped create.
A world that started with a $1 million prize in the California desert, that now promised to reinvent a fundamental facet of human life, and to deliver unfathomable riches to those who could make it happen.
The challengers emerge
Levandowski and Urmson first faced off in March 2004, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hosted the Grand Challenge, a race for autonomous vehicles through California’s Mojave Desert. The director of the small and secretive arm of the Pentagon, better known as DARPA, hoped the race, which was open to anyone, would accelerate the development of unmanned vehicles for use in combat and save lives as the US was getting mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Urmson came to the Grand Challenge as a leader on the team fielded by Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing a doctorate at perhaps the country’s most prestigious robotics institute. CMU’s well-funded “Red Team” and its autonomous Humvee, Sandstorm, were the heavy favorites to win the 142-mile race and the $1 million prize.
Levandowski had no such pedigree or support. He was a master’s student at the University of California, Berkeley’s industrial-engineering department but launched his own effort to build an autonomous motorcycle, called GhostRider. His harebrained creation could stand on its own, but was a dunce when it came to detecting and avoiding obstacles. Levandowski earned a spot in the final round of the race mostly via chutzpah. “It was such a PR attraction that we had to bring it to the desert and see what it did,” DARPA’s race director said in a 2018 interview.
It ended up failing miserably, flopping to the ground roughly one yard from the starting line. The rest of the field did little better. CMU’s Sandstorm went the farthest, getting stuck on a hairpin curve after 7.4 miles.
The Grand Challenge succeeded, though, in whipping up enthusiasm for self-driving technology among amateur and professional engineers across the country. Eighteen months later, at the second Grand Challenge, five vehicles reached the finish line. Urmson’s team finished second, losing out to a team led by the head of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Sebastian Thrun. Levandowski had revamped his motorcycle for the race but fared little better, failing to get past the qualifying round.
Levandowski entered the 2004 and 2005 DARPA Grand Challenges with a self-riding motorcycle.
Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images
DARPA eclipsed that success in 2007 with the Urban Challenge, which swapped the desert roads of the first two races for a mock city at an abandoned Air Force base, complete with intersections, stop signs, and other human-driven vehicles (fitted with protective roll cages).
Here Urmson and Carnegie Mellon finally got their win. Stanford took second, helped along by Levandowski, who had joined the team after impressing Thrun with his scrappy motorcycle effort. But the real upshot of the Urban Challenge was the robotic ballet it presented to the world, with unmanned vehicles nosing through parking lots, turning left into traffic, and acing the annoyingly human four-way stop. It made clear to those watching that self-driving technology was no longer a futuristic fantasy, but a reality not so far out of reach.
Among those watching that day was Larry Page, who as a student had considered studying the tech before taking a professor’s advice to focus on internet search. He had reached out to Thrun after the professor won the second Grand Challenge. Page hired him part-time to accelerate the development of Google Street View, using software inspired by his self-driving work. Thrun in turn hired Levandowski. The two engineers and their team mapped a million miles in just seven months.
Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun connected with Larry Page after the 2005 Grand Challenge, which his team won.
Linda A. Cecero / Stanford News Service
So when Page decided, near the end of 2008, that he wanted cars that could drive themselves, Thrun was the obvious choice to spearhead the effort.
Thrun called a meeting, at his Lake Tahoe chalet, of the best self-driving engineers he knew inside and outside of Google. Nearly all were veterans of DARPA’s challenges, including Urmson and Levandowski. Thrun invited them along for the ride, and they accepted.
Google’s vision was grand in its ambiguity. Page wasn’t proposing a typical government or defense-industry contract. He wasn’t looking for a specific solution to a specific need, with carefully defined funding and spending limits. He just wanted an autonomous car, and he was willing to write something that looked a lot like a blank check to get it. He did, however, believe in aggressive goals. He and Brin pulled up Google Maps and selected 10 routes scattered throughout California, each roughly 100 miles. Thrun, Urmson, Levandowski, and their new teammates would have to make a car that could handle every inch of each route, without human intervention, about 1,000 miles in all. The Chauffeur team, about a dozen strong, called this new challenge the Larry 1K.
Urmson, who had led Carnegie Mellon’s Urban Challenge winning team, ran the show from day to day, with Thrun above him. He moved to the Bay Area from Pittsburgh a few months before his wife and two sons did, and while he got settled, he took up Levandowski on an offer to stay in a spare room in his Palo Alto house.
One of the few team members without a Ph.D., Levandowski worked on hardware, setting up a dozen Toyota Priuses with the necessary suite of radars, cameras, and roof-mounted spinning lidar system. As ever, he delivered at remarkable speed. In the DARPA Challenges, teams had typically taken months to get a vehicle up and running. Levandowski put half a dozen cars together in a couple of weeks.
The differences between Levandowski and Urmson were clear from the beginning. The roommates got along well, but they came at the problem — at the world in general — from opposite mind-sets. Levandowski moved as a blur. “If you need to blow up a dam in Germany, Anthony’s your guy,” Isaac Taylor, Chauffeur’s operations manager, said in an interview. “The general who’s going to win you World War II.”
Urmson was methodical. Near the start of the project, he told Thrun he needed to rewrite the car’s core communication software. Thrun, who leaned toward the fast and scrappy side, thought the system they had was fine. Even if it crashed occasionally, stopping to rework it could slow progress. Urmson insisted, and took several weeks to do the work. The result was a stronger, more reliable system. “He was damn right,” Thrun later admitted in an interview.
Google’s self-driving effort began with a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Over the next 18 months, the Chauffeur team improved their system at a remarkable pace, racking up tens of thousands of miles of experience on Bay Area highways, picking off the Larry 1K routes, and breaking up long hours of coding with games of foosball. They completed the last 100-mile stretch in September 2010 and celebrated with a party at Thrun’s house, where they threw each other into the pool and played “human foosball” on an inflatable field.
A few weeks later, the New York Times tech reporter John Markoff wrote a story that revealed the secret project to the world. He got a ride in the car and gave a positive review, noting it still struggled with things like understanding traffic cops’ hand gestures. He also flicked at a murkier challenge, one that would do much to tear the Chauffeur team apart in the ensuing years, writing: “The company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments.”
‘Make Anthony rich’
The most immediate path to commercializing the technology, it was soon agreed, was to package a version of the software and hardware that automakers could offer buyers as a luxury add-on. On surface streets, where the unpredictable conditions and “edge case” scenarios were still too great for the technology to safely navigate, the car’s human owner would drive, just as she normally does. But on the highway she’d have the option to let the car take over, similar to way that a car’s cruise-control functions.
It sounded reasonable, provided the Google team could rein in the costs and make the sensors reliable. And so, in late 2010 and early 2011, Urmson and Levandowski began visiting Detroit and Germany to explore partnerships with established automakers.
Urmson attaches the first self-driving license plate to Google’s car, issued by Nevada, in 2012.
Courtesy of David Goldwater
Far from being intrigued, the auto executives that the two Googlers met with were either dismissive or uninterested. They considered testing on public roads reckless, thought the roof-mounted lidar laser scanner looked impossibly stupid, and said no, they were not interested in working together.
There were problems closer to home, too, as a result of Levandowski’s side gigs as the founder of a pair of startups called 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots. Google was buying technology from 510 Systems, initially for Street View, and later for the Chauffeur project.
The unorthodox arrangement meant that Levandowski was effectively sending Google’s money across the Bay and into his own pockets, but management had tacitly looked the other way: Google was one of the world’s most profitable companies, and Levandowski, as hard-charging as ever, was getting the job done.
By early 2011, however, things were getting awkward. 510 and its sister company, Anthony’s Robots, had started developing their own self-driving software and a proprietary lidar scanner. Cock your head just right, and Levandowski looked like a potential competitor to the Google effort he had helped start. What’s more, one of 510’s biggest customers was apparently hoping to acquire the company, along with all its intellectual property.
Google’s chieftains decided that Levandowski’s work could not fall into anyone else’s hands, and they moved to buy the two companies. But Levandowski’s questionable setup raised the eyebrows of David Lawee, the exec who led Google’s acquisitions team.
“I don’t understand this guy at all,” Lawee told Thrun in an email later revealed in court proceedings. “As Google, I suppose I’m prepared to take the risk with Anthony, but I can say definitively that if I was choosing a business partner to start a company with, there is no way in hell that I would proceed.”
After a few years with the Prius, Google moved on to testing with Lexus SUVs.
Kim Kulish/Getty Images
Levandowski had grown up in Brussels with his mother, a French citizen who worked for the European Union. At 14, he moved to Northern California to live with his father, an American businessman. He wanted to attend high school in the US, he said later, because he thought it would better set him up for professional success. Even if he couldn’t write in English when he arrived, he didn’t take long to embrace American-style capitalism. At Tamalpais High School, in tony Marin County, Levandowski sold candy to fellow students. After building a website for the school, he launched a business doing the same for companies around town. Before leaving high school, he had made enough money to buy a three-bedroom house (with some help from his dad and stepmother) near the Berkeley campus.
He kept up a web business called La Raison when he started as an undergrad at Berkeley, but realized the only way to keep up with larger competitors was to cut his prices or win over clients with hands-on customer service. “There was no barrier to entry there,” he told the university’s news site. “I don’t want to be someone just providing a commodity at a low price.” Levandowski preferred outthinking people to outworking them. His approach to problem-solving was to find the hack, the way to game the system and jump ahead. Like many in Silicon Valley, he saw this not as cheating, but as good engineering.
Read more: Investors are betting these 10 self-driving-car startups are primed to take on Tesla and Waymo
Levandowski was also a fount of charisma. He’d kept his teammates in the DARPA Grand Challenges going with burritos and enthusiasm. In an interview, a colleague at 510 called conversations with Levandowski, who could weave disparate ideas into big-picture imaginings, almost addictive. But he couldn’t win everyone over.
Thrun was starting to move away from his leadership of the self-driving team, and had considered putting the tall, young engineer in charge. He soon dropped the idea, replying to Lawee later that day: “I now question whether Anthony is fit to lead Chauffeur. I hear similar concerns from the engineering team. Several people there have contacted me that they have concerns about Anthony’s commitment and integrity.” Some team members disliked the fact that Levandowski owned a company from which they were buying hardware — it just seemed shady. Levandowski didn’t help his reputation by wearing a custom T-shirt reading “I Drink Your Milkshake.” It was a reference to the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” about a conniving oilman who bilks people out of their fortunes, murdering a couple along the way.
By 2014, Urmson had solidified his position as the head of Chauffeur, and its public face.
John Green/Getty Images
“He plays above board,” said one Chauffeur teammate in an interview. “He just changes the rules as he goes.”
Ultimately, Thrun concluded that putting Levandowski in charge of Chauffeur was too risky. “If he is the single leader, a good number of team members will leave,” he told Larry Page in an email made public during the Waymo v. Uber trial. Urmson — reliable and respected — would take the top spot.
The deal to buy Levandowski’s technology, and to keep his dynamism in house, went forward, though. Google paid roughly $20 million for 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots. Workers who had joined 510 in its first few years and expected a big payout — standard fare for an acquired startup — were disappointed. Levandowski had sold 510 for just enough so that the real money stayed with the founders; anything above the $20 million mark would have gone to the employees.
The millions that Levandowski reaped from the acquisition were just the amuse-bouche. Chauffeur had an unusual bonus structure: At four-year intervals, Google would come up with a valuation for what they’d built, and pay workers a certain percentage of that number; leaving before the four-year mark meant sacrificing the bonus. Most of the team’s key members would get a 0.5% share. But Levandowski, partly to compensate him for selling his companies for a relatively low price, would get a tenth of the entire pot, 20 times more than most of his colleagues. The 10%, according to an email from Thrun, made public during the Waymo v. Uber trial, was based on a directive from Page to “make Anthony rich if Chauffeur succeeds.”
That incentive structure made decisions about how Chauffeur would create a business all the more important. As their research moved along, the engineers staked out their own positions not just on who should lead, but on where they should go.
Levandowski, always looking to charge ahead, advocated for selling an aftermarket kit that could make any car drive itself on the highway. Urmson wanted something more carefully integrated into a car, believing it would be more reliable, even if it took longer to produce. The two men were no longer roommates; Urmson had moved out when his wife and sons arrived from Pittsburgh, and had put a down payment on a house with his bonus from completing the Larry 1K. But by now they were finding it hard even to be colleagues.
Where Levandowski had panache, Urmson had pedigree. Born and raised in Canada, he’d graduated from the University of Manitoba with a nearly perfect GPA before heading to Pittsburgh to get his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon’s illustrious robotics institute. By the time of the 2004 Grand Challenge, he’d helped design robots to trawl for meteorites in Antarctica, assemble space stations in orbit, and search for life on Mars. By 2009, he was an up-and-coming robotics star. He was also, various colleagues at CMU and Google said in interviews, a researcher at heart, more suited to exploring new ideas than to hardening them into products.
Urmson, left, with Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Urmson was known as a talented, assiduous engineer, but some teammates said he was a cannier political player than he let on.
LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/MediaNews/Getty Images
True to his Canadian heritage, he was unfailingly polite. He was nice to journalists but never talked out of school. He never bent the rules, or at least was never caught. But some Chauffeur teammates — including Levandowski — said in interviews that Urmson was a cannier political player than he let on. And he was willing to fight, if quietly, for what he wanted.
The pursuit of the Larry 1K had preempted potential tensions by motivating everyone toward a shared, well-defined goal. Now the differences in how they viewed Chauffeur’s future, and the path to get there, became a source of conflict, and part of a bigger power struggle. Even after Thrun chose Urmson to lead, Urmson and Levandowski made it clear that they wanted to run things, and that if the other had too much power, the program could be ruined. Thrun thought each offered a valuable skill set, and that differences in perspective were healthy. 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.
They 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).
These might be valid debates for designers on the verge of putting a product in the market. But Chauffeur wasn’t anywhere near that point. The engineers — none of whom had relevant product, design, or business experience — were fighting over the design for their new fleet of Lexus SUVs (a more comfortable, capable option than the original Priuses) that would be used by safety drivers but never be seen by customers.
Core members of the early Chauffeur team included Urmson (far left) and Levandowski (far right).
Courtesy of David Goldwater
“We argued about the dumbest things and wasted so much time,” Don Burnette, an engineer, said in an interview. “How impactful or meaningful was that button discussion in retrospect? It was a complete waste of time.”
Tensions between Urmson and Levandowski didn’t affect the team on a daily basis, but the two occasionally erupted at each other, forcing Thrun to intervene. According to Larry Burns’ book “Autonomy,” he admonished the team for in-fighting in an email. They had climbed one mountain, he said, but were standing at the base of a much taller one: “We have not yet saved a single life. We have not yet enabled a single blind or disabled person to operate a car.”
Thrun didn’t want to fire either of the engineers, and neither wanted to leave. Despite their differences, they were building something unprecedented, at the only company that had the resources and gumption to give it a shot. And they would only get their bonuses — which promised to be in the seven-figure range — if they stuck around until the end of 2015.
The rivalry goes corporate
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick got his first taste of the self-driving future one morning in August 2013, when he stepped out of the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto and saw a Google driverless car waiting for him, the lidar spinning away on its roof. With its ride-hailing business taking off, Uber was a hot property. Larry Page was interested in investing some of Google’s cash reserves in the startup, and he had invited Kalanick over for a meeting. Sending Chauffeur’s chariot was part of the VIP treatment.
Kalanick wasn’t too impressed with the robot’s driving. “The car barely worked,” he said, according to Adam Lashinsky’s book “Wild Ride.” “At times it would do some things it was supposed to. And other times it wouldn’t. It was just not there yet.” But it didn’t take him long to imagine what a working self-driving car could do for his business. “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat,” he told Google Ventures partner David Krane, according to Brad Stone’s book “The Upstarts.” He was referring to the human driver, who pocketed about three-quarters of each Uber fare. With Google’s self-driving cars, Kalanick could eliminate one of his company’s great roadblocks to profitability.
A Volvo XC90 fitted with Uber’s self-driving technology.
Eventually, he came to see the technology as existential. Driverless cars would be safer and cheaper than human-driven ones, and any company that provided them would dominate the market, he said. “In order for Uber to exist in the future, we will likely need to be a leader in the AV, autonomous vehicle, space,” he said in a 2017 deposition as part of the Waymo v. Uber case.
In that meeting, though, the Google contingent didn’t make any promises involving self-driving. Google’s leaders talked up how the tech giant’s resources could help Uber grow — and produce valuable returns on a Google investment. Page put $258 million into Uber and sat Google exec David Drummond on the startup’s board of directors. Kalanick cashed the check and figured Google would come back to discuss an autonomous-driving collaboration. He didn’t know that in a garage on the outskirts of the Google campus, the Chauffeur team was already developing a product not to run on the Uber ride-hailing network but to challenge it head on.
Through 2012, the Chauffeur team had been focused on a highway product. In early 2013, they gave 100 Google employees self-driving prototypes to use in their daily lives. They told them to use the self-driving function on the highway only, and to keep their eyes on the road at all times, staying ready to take control back from the computer. The cars were good but far from perfect, and nowhere near ready to be left on their own. The team rigged up cameras inside the cars and waited for the results to come in.
Other factors weighed against the highway-assist-feature idea. For one thing, the mainstream auto industry was by now developing similar technology. Automakers including Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Cadillac, and Tesla were moving toward using camera and radar systems to let cars take over on the highway. Even if Google’s system performed better, it wouldn’t look much more sophisticated. Plus, the idea of the limited feature annoyed Sergey Brin, who had greater ambitions in mind than making Google an auto-industry supplier. If the tech giant was to be serious about driverless cars, there was no point in starting with a halfway solution.
So Urmson found a new way forward. After years of modifying Prius and Lexus cars, Google was going to create its own vehicle, one designed for total self-driving. No steering wheel. No pedals. And Google was not going to sell it, either. Google would operate just like Uber, as a ride-hailing service, but without the dude in the front seat.
The design team drew up an electric two-seat vehicle, roughly the shape of a child’s Fisher-Price car, but with doors, and painted white and gray instead of yellow and red. Google teamed up with Detroit-based auto-industry supplier Roush to put it together. With the exception of the main lidar, which sat on the roof like a Shriner’s fez, the sensors were tucked carefully into the vehicle’s body. Urmson wanted it to be “approachable and friendly.” The headlights, short-range lidar, and grille formed a little face. Chauffeur called it “Firefly.” Based on its cuddliness and black “nose,” the press (and in private, some Googlers) took to calling it the “koala car.”
Urmson, right, shows the Firefly car to Google chairman Eric Schmidt and US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.
Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group
Firefly’s cutesy nature belied the fact that delivering on Urmson’s lofty vision of a vehicle to usher in the age of autonomy had been no easy thing. For more than a year, the Googlers struggled with the vagaries of hardware development. Urmson wanted an exterior made of foam, so that any collisions, even at the vehicle’s low speeds, would be less likely to hurt a pedestrian. It was a nice idea that didn’t reckon with the difficulty of getting the right kind of foam, a material that would keep its shape over time but remain pliable enough to serve its purpose; or the fact that when they did find the right balance, they couldn’t get paint to stay on the exterior. Each iteration of the hardware design cost time and money. Costs stretched into the tens of millions, but it made one hell of a statement.
Firefly made its official debut on May 27, 2014, when Sergey Brin spoke onstage with the journalists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at Recode’s inaugural Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Swisher asked the obvious question: “If you have the self-driving-car fleet, don’t you need to own the reservation system? Which is Uber. Which you have a big investment in.” Brin punted, saying the team would sort out the details of the business closer to wide-scale deployment. “Longer term, it’s not clear,” he said. “We’re almost certainly going to partner with a lot of companies, possibly Uber.”
Travis Kalanick was at the same conference, and had received a heads-up that Google would be talking up a service that sounded a lot like a human-free competitor to Uber. He was furious, but when he took the stage for his own talk, he said he loved the idea of plugging autonomous vehicles into Uber’s network, and that it would be great news for riders, making Uber cheaper than owning a car. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” he said. What he didn’t say was that he wasn’t going to wait to see the results of Brin’s “possibly” working with Uber. If Google wasn’t going to help him free up the driver’s seat, he was ready to do it himself.
In early 2014, Kalanick tasked his chief product officer, Jeff Holden, with surveying the robotics world and scouting for a team that could rival the collection of DARPA Challenge veterans Sebastian Thrun had assembled.
Uber made its initial move at the end of 2014, hiring the staff of a small Pittsburgh company called Carnegie Robotics. Like most of his colleagues, Carnegie Robotics founder John Bares had started his career with Carnegie Mellon University. Once convinced of Holden’s seriousness, Bares and his team got excited about the idea of using their expertise to improve the lives of everyday people. And Uber, with its existing fleets of drivers all over the world, offered a natural path to enter the market: As the robots mastered more kinds of roads and territories, they could, over many years, gradually take the place of those humans.
Chasing Google’s effort — nearly six years old at this point — would take a serious investment, and serious brainpower. Kalanick could provide the former. For the latter, Bares went to Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, which he had led for 13 years before launching his own company. Familiarly known as NREC (pronounced en-reck), the center operated as a mostly autonomous arm of the university. It focused not on research, but on building real robots for real customers, like John Deere and the US military.
Uber launched its own self-driving team in 2015, basing in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Nowhere else, Bares knew, would he find so many specialists not just in making damn good robots, but in making them work commercially. As 2014 drew to a close, Bares and Holden started talking to NREC’s workers. It wasn’t a hard sales pitch. Uber, having raised another $1.2 billion in funding that summer and desperate to catch up to Google, would double, maybe triple their salaries. And they wouldn’t have to move, or even adjust their commutes. San Francisco–based Uber would open a new engineering center next door to the NREC lab, in an old chocolate factory.
Over the years, NREC had seen plenty of its employees leave for other jobs. It had never seen dozens leave for the same gig, all at once. In February 2015, about forty NREC employees, including the lab’s director, resigned. Together, under Bares’s leadership, they formed a new arm of Uber, the Advanced Technologies Center, later renamed the Advanced Technologies Group.
‘Money Destruction Team’ and a $120 million bonus to Levandowski
The news of Uber launching an outright competing effort hit the Chauffeur team like a cannonball to the stomach. On paper, Team Google was rolling, on the verge of clocking its 1 millionth mile on public roads and averaging more than 3,000 miles between times when the safety operators disengaged for a safety reason. In March 2015, Chris Urmson gave a TED Talk about Chauffeur, and closed his talk with a photo of his two boys, both of them born while he was helping lead Carnegie Mellon’s Red Team through the DARPA Grand Challenges. “My oldest son is 11, and that means in four and a half years he’s going to be able to get his driver’s license,” he told the audience. “My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Offstage, his view of the project wasn’t so rosy. Chauffeur’s software was improving, but the effort was slowing down just as Uber’s was ramping up. Uber was pulling in self-driving talent like a tractor beam; it would soon have 300 people. Uber had established a 54-acre test track, hired a crew of safety operators to test its cars, and retrofitted a fleet of Ford Fusions with all the necessary sensors for autonomy.
Six weeks before his TED Talk, as Uber revealed it was turning the push for self-driving tech into a race, Urmson sent an email to Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Google financial chief Patrick Pichette, and Google X lead Astro Teller. “Over the last few months we have begun operating to minimize downside, not to win,” he wrote. “We risk wasting our advantage and investment if we do not empower the team to move with velocity.” Uber was hiring people Urmson had wanted to bring on board a year and a half earlier but couldn’t because of hiring freezes. The team’s morale was being damaged by budget constraints, he said.
Uber’s self-driving startup Otto developed technology allowing big rigs to drive themselves.
Tony Avela/AP Photo
Chauffeur was confronting a nasty truth: In developing autonomous-driving machines, the easy work came first. A small but talented team could make a car navigate any road Larry Page picked off a map. But turning that achievement into a commercially viable product would require years more of work, billions of dollars, and hundreds if not thousands of workers. It required chasing down an endless series of what engineers call “edge cases.” Here, that meant all the strange things that happen on the road.
Often, some element of the system would plateau, reaching a point where the engineers just didn’t know how to make it any better. The car might be able to identify a motorcyclist 999 times out of 1,000, but that wasn’t good enough to be a safe driver. Getting to 9,999 times out of 10,000 — closer to acceptable — might require the use of a new technique that the software wasn’t designed to include. Adding it might mean tossing out code the team had written over months or even years, and rebuilding it from scratch. That was a hard decision to make, especially since ripping up any element of a driving system could slow the development of all the bits that interacted with it. And now the Chauffeur team had to fight not just the problem itself but a competitor flush with talent and ambition, which considered the technology not a nice way to pad profits but vital to its long-term existence.
In his email, Urmson broke from his usually subdued demeanor, pushing Google’s leadership to commit to finishing what they had started. “We have a choice,” he wrote, “between being the headline or the footnote in history’s book on the next revolution in transportation. Let’s make the right choice.”
Levandowski, too, worried that Google was squandering its head start. No one doubted Urmson’s engineering skills. But some team members, including Levandowski, found their leader too invested in the idea of perfection, to the detriment of making a product they could sell. They felt that Chauffeur had become an “eternal research project,” abetted by Google’s long leash and ample resources. Mocking the project’s penchant for burning through financial reserves, members of the electrical engineering team took to wearing shirts that read “Money Destruction Team,” depicting piles of flaming cash.
Levandowski, as Uber’s new head of self-driving, shows off his vehicle to the press in 2016.
At some point, Levandowski thought, the team had to take concrete steps toward introducing a commercial product. But he had little power to wield. Frustrated by the team’s lack of progress and his diminished role, he began considering other options.
And now, the choice was no longer between staying with Google and going it alone. Uber’s Kalanick was willing to talk to anyone who could help him eat into Google’s head start. Especially anyone who had helped Google build that gap to begin with. Levandowski started meeting with Uber executives, including Jeff Holden.
In a 2017 deposition, Urmson said that after he took the top spot, he tried to make peace with Levandowski. “There was a period after it became clear that I was leading Chauffeur and he was not, where I worked very hard to kind of mend bridges and bring him, you know, into the fold.” But when he found out about Levandowski’s maneuverings, he was fed up.
“We need to fire Anthony Levandowski,” Urmson told some colleagues in an August 4 email that was later introduced in court. “I have just heard today from two different sources that Anthony is approaching members of their team attempting to set up a package deal of people that he could sell en masse to Uber.” Larry Page didn’t receive that email, but he was used to chatter about Levandowski’s character and ethics. “There was always concern,” the Google co-founder said in a deposition. “You know, people would say, ‘Oh, Anthony is doing this. Anthony is doing that.'” But the company leadership thought Levandowski was still worth keeping in house.
In October 2015, Google X chief Astro Teller wrote in an internal email that Page was concerned about Levandowski leaving and going to help the competition. Around this time, Page said, Levandowski approached him about his desire to leave the team and go start his own venture, working on autonomous semi-trucks. He was tired of his colleagues, Page recalled Levandowski saying, and said something to the tune of “Why don’t I just go to a company that does trucking? And everything will be fine.” Page told him that would not be fine — that it would be a clearly competitive threat. “I now believe he was trying to get me to say that it would not be competitive if he did trucking, because he was already doing it,” Page said in a deposition.
As Levandowski recruited people to his latest venture, his talks with Uber escalated to conversations with CEO Travis Kalanick. The engineer and the executive had met earlier, at Sebastian Thrun’s suggestion, and hit it off. They would meet at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and take long walks along the waterfront, toward the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Mike Isaac’s book “Super Pumped.” They exchanged hundreds of text messages and spent “jam sessions” brainstorming. Levandowski said in an interview he saw Kalanick as something of a mentor; Kalanick told Bloomberg Businessweek the younger engineer was like his “brother from another mother.” Each was aggressive in his business dealings and willing to push up against the limits of what others considered ethical, if not legal.
Travis Kalanick, left, called Levandowski his “brother from another mother.” Levandowski saw Kalanick as a sort of mentor.
Tony Avelar/AP Photo
Both saw self-driving as it was during the DARPA Grand Challenges: First place got the prize, with nothing left over for anyone who pulled in second. “Autonomous transportation is very possibly a winner-take-all and, thus, existential for Uber,” Kalanick told his team in an email made public during court proceedings.
And Uber wasn’t looking like a winner. A year in, Holden told Kalanick in an email, “We started from a huge gap with Google, and I think we’ve all been sobered by how hard it is to close that gap, even with exceptional effort.” In his notes, team leader Bares wrote, “My strain, personal strain, increasing pressure to catch up seven years and deploy 100,000 cars in 2020.”
For Kalanick, bringing Levandowski aboard was an obvious way to supercharge his team’s bid to be that winner. He considered the Googler one of the world’s premier experts on the subject, someone who had been studying the problem for more than a decade and knew how to get an operation off the ground, fast.
Kalanick’s do-or-die attitude appealed to Levandowski. “Uber had to ship a product,” he said in an interview. This would be no eternal research project. So they settled on a straightforward plan. Levandowski would leave Google and start his own company, a robo-trucking effort called Otto, which Uber would acquire a few months later.
The timing was just right. It had been four years since the brokering of the Chauffeur equity deal. The end of 2015 was bonus time, and Google, sticking to the instructions Page had issued in 2011, made Levandowski rich. They pinned the value of the self-driving effort at $4.5 billion, which translated to $120 million for the engineer.
On January 27, 2016, Kalanick received an email from an exec on Uber’s deal team: “We have a tentative deal with respect to Newco,” using their placeholder name for the company Levandowski would launch.
Later that day, Levandowski sent his “in the trunk” email to Page, then made his exit from Google, escorted by Urmson.
The self-driving diaspora
In August, Uber made public its acquisition of Otto (which it had sealed in April), and also announced it would launch its self-driving Ford Fusion sedans and Volvo XC90 SUVs on the streets of Pittsburgh. They’d be part of Uber’s regular service, with safety operators up front and free rides for passengers who happened to order one. Uber, not Google, would be the first company welcoming the public into its autonomous vehicles in the United States. And the man in charge of the effort was Levandowski.
Taken together, the news was a major coup for Uber, dealing a blow to the perception of Google as the undisputed leader in self-driving tech. It rattled the Chauffeur team, too, and came at a bad time. Levandowski wasn’t the only core team member to leave Chauffeur after bonuses were doled out. And he wasn’t alone in thinking a nimbler, more targeted effort could make progress where Google had struggled. In August, longtime engineers Dave Ferguson, Jiajun Zhu, and Russ Smith quit to start Nuro, a venture focused on what they considered a near-term achievable commercial enterprise: local deliveries using low-speed autonomous vehicles. Hardware lead Bryan Salesky followed them out the door a few weeks later and launched Argo AI, which eventually partnered with Ford and Volkswagen.
After leaving Google, Urmson, center, launched his own self-driving startup, Aurora Innovation.
The most significant departure that summer was that of Chris Urmson. Earlier that year, he’d lost his top spot to John Krafcik, a former auto exec Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired to be the project’s CEO. By some accounts, he and Urmson didn’t see eye to eye. Either way, after seven and a half years with Google, Urmson wanted a change. In April 2017, he announced he was launching his own self-driving venture called Aurora Innovation.
With the news that Uber had brought in Levandowski and was opening a research center in the Bay Area, the remaining Googlers worried about losing their potency. The rest of the world was catching on to the potential of self-driving technology, and Google was no longer the only game in town. “It’s clear how active the space is right now with VCs & large companies waving crazy opportunities around,” Dmitri Dolgov, who replaced Urmson as tech lead, told Krafcik and others in an August 2016 email made public during Waymo v. Uber. Uber was actively looking to poach Google engineers, and Chauffeur, which had temporarily frozen hiring, lost more than a few people to its rival. “I think we should be seriously concerned,” Dolgov wrote.
Jail time and bankruptcy for Levandowski, while Urmson and others edge closer to the finish line
Google’s self-driving project was, however, still making progress. It became its own company, called Waymo, under Alphabet’s corporate umbrella at the end of 2016. In 2018, it started a pilot program in the Phoenix suburbs, allowing carefully selected beta users to ride in the autonomous minivans that had replaced the Firefly car, with human backups at the wheel. It wasn’t until 2020 that Waymo started taking the safety operators out of its cars in earnest, and even then it started with a 50-square-mile area.
Dolgov was right to be concerned about competitors eating into the lead Google had built through its years of self-driving research and development. In the case of Uber, the search giant called foul play. Waymo sued Uber in 2017, accusing it of stealing trade secrets. It turned out Levandowski had downloaded a trove of internal documents on his way out the door. Uber quickly fired Levandowski, and the companies ultimately settled, but in 2019 the Department of Justice indicted Levandowski on criminal charges of trade-secret theft. He ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, to be served once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. And his massive bonus didn’t help much: An arbitration panel ruled he’d engaged in unfair competition when he left Google, and that he owed his former employer $179 million. He declared bankruptcy.
Levandowski pleaded guilty to a charge of trade-secret theft and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The self-driving unit at Uber that Levandowski had briefly led fared little better. In March 2018, a few weeks after the lawsuit with Waymo ended, a self-driving Uber car hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. Subsequent reports revealed not just that the effort had a shoddy safety culture, but that it had made little progress toward a self-driving car. Over the ensuing two years, it did little public testing and said close to nothing about how it was progressing, even as its rivals raced ahead.
Sixteen years after DARPA fired the starting gun with the Grand Challenge, the field is as crowded as ever, and the finish line is finally coming into sight. Waymo is now taking some drivers out of the front seat. Nearly all the major automakers have a hand in the space. General Motors and Honda backed Cruise, which is now taking the backups out of its cars in San Francisco, a significant step toward a driverless commercial taxi service. Ford and Volkswagen are funding Argo, which is working on taxi and delivery vehicles for Miami. Amazon acquired the stealthy Zoox earlier this year, and Apple’s own autonomous vehicle has been the source of rumors for years. That diversity — to say nothing of the efforts going on around the world — makes clear that this industry is not, in fact, “winner take all.”
Not to say that it won’t have losers.
The Advanced Technologies Group met its end in December 2020, when Uber — hit hard by the pandemic and eager to shed dead weight — sold the team Levandowski had once promised to lead to a gold medal.
The buyer: Chris Urmson’s Aurora Innovation.
On January 7, 2016, Anthony Levandowski emailed Larry Page to wish him a happy new year and to pitch him on a new approach to the search giant’s self-driving-car research project.