Uber ex-CEO Kalanick defends deal at heart of lawsuit with Google
SAN FRANCISCO — Travis Kalanick, the once high-flying former CEO of Uber, took the stand Tuesday in the second day of a pivotal Silicon Valley trial that could impact what company leads the self-driving transportation race.
Kalanick, a tech executive who became famous for his take-no-prisoners attitude, was confident, curt and sometimes vague when he faced questions designed to help Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven build his case. Waymo, once known as Google's autonomous car program, alleges Uber stole trade secrets in order to speed up its own nascent self-driving car division.
Verhoeven suggested that Kalanick's early meetings in late 2015 with then-Google employee Anthony Levandowski were suspect as they concerned the purchase of a non-existent company Levandowski hoped to start. Kalanick responded bluntly.
"The answer is yes, (Levandowski) was very adamant about starting a company, and we were very adamant about hiring him," he said.
Asked what was discussed during their early meetings, which consisted of working "jam sessions," Kalanick said: "I don't remember."
Levandowski left Google abruptly and in early 2016 started self-driving truck company Otto. Eight months later, Uber bought Otto for around $680 million.
In April 2017, Waymo sued Uber alleging that Levandowski stole trade secrets related to Uber's light detection and ranging system — lasers that tell autonomous cars where they are — and passed them along to Uber's engineers. Uber has long denied the charges and said its LiDAR has none of Waymo's tech.
Greed is good. Wink, wink.
Silicon Valley's bro culture has clearly been on display during the trial, particularly in the interactions between Kalanick and Levandowski as Kalanick — in Uber's words — tried to convince him to join.
In one text, Levandowski sent Kalanick a link to a YouTube video of Michael Douglas' famous "Greed is good" speech from the movie "Wall Street." "Here's the speech you need to give. Wink. Wink," Levandowski wrote.
Whether the jury will end up seeing that text isn't clear, Judge Alsup said he'd wait until he'd heard Kalanick's testimony — though he did call it “one of the best moments in all of Hollywood.”
The general feel of Uber's culture comes through in a list of possible outcomes for the hiring of Levandowski that range from "Super Duper" to "Meh" to "Abject Failure."
Super Duper was good, the notes indicate, because then the project could be called Uber Super Duper, or USD, so its code name could be "$."
Waymo lawyer Verhoeven pushed hard on the notion that Levandowski and Kalanick were in discussions while Levandowski was still working for Google, long before he'd even made public his intentions to leave the company.
One piece of evidence flashed up on the screens in the courtroom was an Uber visitor's badge issued to Levandowski on Dec. 20, 2015, which bore the line "Who are you here to see? Travis Kalanick."
Last year was a brutal one for the ride-hailing company, which was hit with accusations of harboring a toxic environment for women and running surveillance programs that skirted the law.
Kalanick resigned from Uber in June 2017 under pressure from investors, and new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took over in September. Khosrowshahi continues to grapple with fallout from Kalanick's eight-year leadership stint, which recently included reports of a data breach that was kept secret.
Kalanick is expected back in court Wednesday to continue his testimony for Waymo attorneys, who still have another witness to call. Next up will be Uber's lawyers, whose first witness will be Kalanick.
While Kalanick once seemed to have aspirations to keep control of his company and possibly even make a return to its leadership ranks, those days seem over, with reports that he aims to sell 29% of his Uber shares at a value of $1.4 billion.
Stolen files and mis-sent emails
Earlier in the day, jurors heard testimony from a variety of Waymo employees who discussed purloined files and mis-sent emails.
But the outspoken judge in the case, William Alsup, took pains to explain the critical difference between technology that is patented (which is public but protected) and tech that is considered a trade secret (which is kept hidden to the best of a company's ability).
Patented information, Alsup said, is not the subject of this lawsuit. Trade secrets are at issue, and many companies have them.
"You can't steal somebody else's trade secrets," he said. "That's a no-no. But if you independently develop a trade secret, you can't sue them over it. You can only sue them over stealing or misappropriating their trade secrets."
Waymo vice president of engineering Dmitri Dolgov repeatedly was pressed by Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez to describe how the information that Waymo had created was considered top secret by its own engineers.
"Did anyone ever (tell an engineer), 'Great job coming up with this!'?" asked Gonzalez. Dolgov said he could not recall that happening related to a particular piece of technology.
The data dump
Waymo attorneys also put Google security engineer Gary Brown on the stand to talk about discovering that Levandowski had spent days in late 2015 downloading 14,107 files from Google's servers, which were then transferred to a memory card.
Uber's lawyer countered that days later, Levandowski's desktop computer was wiped clean of data in a move that was routine when an employee left Google. The implication: If Google had been so suspicious of Levandowski and his motives, why did it reconfigure his computer?
Waymo also questioned a Google employee who accidentally received an email that circuit board manufacturer Gorilla Circuits had apparently meant to send to Uber. It contained images of a circuit board that Grossman recognized as being similar to the ones used in Google's LiDAR.
That incident, which was quickly reported up the chain at Google, is what led to the lawsuit. But Judge Alsup was impatient with Waymo's attorneys, who he felt were not being specific enough about whether the circuit board itself was the trade secret at the heart of the trial.
"I thought I'd made a ruling that you couldn't for one second suggest the Gorilla Circuits was a trade secret," Alsup said. "If you suggest to the jury that there is some trade secrets in that gorilla thing, I'm going to be upset with you. ...You've been trying to screw that into the case and it has nothing to do with any trade secrets that's in place."