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How Uber and Waymo ended up rivals in the race for driverless cars

Uber and Google once considered each other allies

Mike Isaac 

Travis Kalanick, Uber, CEO
Travis Kalanick

At a technology conference in mid-2014, co-founder presented the company’s first prototype for a Watching in the audience was Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, the ride-hailing start-up.

Brin’s presentation — including a video of a compact two-seater autonomously doing laps around a parking lot — jolted Kalanick, according to two people who spoke with him. Google, the search giant — long considered an ally — seemed to be turning on him. And even as was a growing force to be reckoned with, it was lacking in technology, an important field of study that might affect the future of transportation. So Kalanick spent much of 2015 raiding Google’s engineering corps. To learn about the technology, he struck up a friendship with Anthony Levandowski, a top autonomous vehicle engineer at “G-co,” Kalanick’s pet name for

The two men often spoke for hours about the future of driving, meeting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and walking five miles to the Golden Gate Bridge, according to two people familiar with the executives.

The friendship developed into the partnership. Levandowski left last year to form Otto, a self-driving trucking start-up. acquired it months later for nearly $700 million. Kalanick subsequently appointed Levandowski to run Uber’s autonomous vehicle research.

That relationship has since set off a legal morass, with Google’s self-driving vehicle business — now called — accusing Levandowski of creating Otto as a front to steal trade secrets from Google, then using the findings with Uber’s driverless cars. On Monday, a federal judge in San Francisco barred Levandowski from working on a crucial component of Uber’s technology for the duration of the case.

The implications are set to reverberate far beyond the courtroom. Any setback for will shake up the driverless car industry, which is locked in a bitter race to introduce and commercialise autonomous cars. Silicon Valley tech titans and Detroit automakers are making huge investments — bets that autonomous vehicle technology will usher in a new age of how people get around. For some companies, especially traditional carmakers, their very survival is at stake.

While has been developing autonomous vehicle technology for more than a decade, others have raced to catch up. General Motors, Ford, Apple, Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among those that have jumped in. All are competing — and sometimes cooperating — for a slice of a new market expected to top $77 billion over the next two decades, according to a study from Boston Consulting Group.

has been ahead of many others in publicly testing autonomous vehicles. Last year, the company began a pilot program of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh; it has also done testing in San Francisco and Tempe, Ariz.

That aggressiveness has spurred an intense rivalry with Waymo’s legal pursuit of and Levandowski is out of corporate character; has tended to refrain from suing former employees who move to competitors. Many at and are incensed at Levandowski and how he may have betrayed them for a rich payday, according to current and former employees.

That has pushed to strike back. Beyond suing Uber, said on Sunday it had teamed up with Lyft, a ride-hailing rival, on driverless car initiatives. “This is a race where every single minute seems to count,” said Carl W Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who has followed the Waymo-case.

and once considered each other allies. Google’s venture capital arm, now known as GV, spotted Uber’s potential early and invested more than $200 million in the fledgling ride-hailing network in 2013.

©2017 The New York Times News Service