Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

The Pardon of Anthony Levandowski

by Roger Lanctot | 1月 20, 2021

Among the 143 last minute pardons issued by outgoing President Donald Trump is one for Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski's pardon raises important questions regarding the ownership and protection of intellectual property, the creation of economic value, and the confidence in the industry behind the pursuit of autonomous vehicle technology.

Levandowski's story is one of circumventing one's own employer, circumventing regulators, breaking laws, and taking advantage of colleagues in pursuit of personal gain. All justified in the service of a greater societal good - leveraging technology to save lives, time, and money while reducing vehicle emissions.

Levandowski's storied - if brief - career is at the heart of the pursuit of automated driving embodied in Google's Waymo self-driving car unit and includes his groundbreaking work leading up to his successes at Google and his post-Google work co-founding the Otto self-driving truck unit and, after Otto's acquisition by Uber and his firing from Otto, founding to develop AV retrofit technology for trucks.

Levandowski's undoing was his alleged theft of intellectual property from Google in advance of his departure to found Otto. On August 4, 2020, Levandowski formally pleaded guilty to one count of trade secret theft, and Judge William Alsup sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining 32 charges as a part of the plea agreement, according to Wikipedia.

Levandowski helped lay essential foundational elements in the pursuit of transportation disruption. His work on mapping, which led to Google's StreetView project, and the drive to test autonomous vehicles driving on public roads have forever transformed how regular people and regulators think about changing transportation for the better.

For his efforts, Levandowski was richly rewarded, selling his 510 Systems - created outside of Google on the sly as a supplier of sensor technology to Google - for $20M and pocketing $120M in compensation upon his departure from Google to join Otto. Levandowski's work created massive economic value for both Google and Uber along with legal entanglements - Uber is trying to force Levandowski to pay $179M restitution owed to Google and Levandowski claims Uber owes him billions of dollars from the Otto deal, according to The Verge.

Levandowski's theft of information from Google, as detailed in Mike Isaac's "Super Pumpted: The Battle for Uber," was as brazen as his pursuit of autonomous driving which included high-profile publicity stunts (rigging a Toyota Prius for autonomous driving to deliver a pizza in San Francisco) and clever use of lobbyists during his time at Otto. The words used to describe Levandowski in "Super Pumped" include: rule-breaking, hacking, reckless, corner-cutting, charming, irritating.

Above all, Levandowski was able to deliver the goods. His vision for autonomous vehicle development and operation has been repeatedly validated undone only by his impatience and larcenous behavior.

Trump's pardon may serve as a fresh start for Levandowski who will no doubt re-enter the race to deliver automated vehicles to public highways. With billions of dollars sloshing around the bank accounts of venture capitalists, private equity companies, auto makers, semiconductor companies, and the emergence of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) there will soon be a well-worn path to Levandowski's door.

The pardon is a mighty endorsement of Levandowski's methods and outcomes. Even his sentencing judge admired his work and contribution to the autonomous driving development effort.

Of course, Levandowski does not possess a magic potion. Even he is facing years of further effort to achieve the objective of vehicle autonomy.

It's worth remembering that for every Anthony Levandowski there are 10 Chris Urmsons (Aurora) or Sebastian Thruns (Kitty Hawk) or Bryan Saleskys (Argo) working on the same problems put painting inside the lines without stealing intellectual property or breaking laws. All of these engineers are handsomely compensated for their efforts and, perhaps more importantly, are able to play well with others and lead immense development teams - sharing their knowledge in the process.

There is a battle for ideas in the race for autonomous driving that involves trust and confidence between employers and employees, between service providers and customers, and between companies and stockholders. That trust and confidence supports the technology development that solves problems, validates business models, and creates value.

Levandowski was simultaneously building and undermining the infrastructure of an entire emerging industry. The industry will work hard to ensure there is never another Anthony Levandowski - even as the original is welcomed back, perhaps grudgingly.

Markets and industries thrive on disruption. The Anthony Levandowskis and Travis Kalanicks of the world represent precisely the wrong kind of disruption. Theft is not a business model. One can only hope that this lesson is not lost in the pardoning of Anthony Levandowski. Build back better, indeed.

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