Ousted Uber Technologies Inc. head Travis Kalanick learned early last year that the engineer who until recently oversaw the company’s driverless car project possessed discs of information from Google, according to a court filing. Kalanick, who resigned under pressure Monday, told Anthony Levandowski around March 2016 that Uber didn’t want the information and that he shouldn’t bring it to the ride-hailing company, and the engineer told management that he destroyed the discs, according to the filing.
The exchange was revealed late Wednesday in a trade secrets lawsuit Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo filed against Uber in San Francisco federal court. While driverless cars aren’t expected on U.S. roads for five to 10 years, the companies are fighting for technology that will put the winner ahead of rivals including established carmakers in a multibillion dollar industry. The litigation was cited as a primary cause of concern in an investor letter to Kalanick that led to his forced resignation.
Waymo argues in the filing that Uber’s delayed June 5 disclosure of the exchange, and its knowledge of the destruction of the discs, require the company to prove to U.S. District Judge William Alsup that it’s not in contempt of court for repeatedly violating his orders to turn over the information.
Uber spokesman Matt Kallman didn’t immediately return an email after regular business hours seeking comment on the filing. Waymo spokesman Johnny Luu didn’t immediately respond to an email after regular business hours seeking comment.
Waymo claims in the lawsuit that in 2015, Levandowski and Uber hatched a plan for him to steal more than 14,000 proprietary files, including the designs for lidar technology that helps driverless cars see their surroundings. Uber, which acquired Levandowski’s startup, Otto, in August for $680 million, has denied Waymo’s allegations and says its automation technology has been developed without significant input from Levandowski.
Kalanick’s knowledge that Levandowski had information about his rival’s driverless car research again puts him at the center of another headline-grabbing controversy. As the company searches for a new leader, it’s also grappling with allegations of having a male-dominated culture and overlooking employee claims of sexual harassment, mishandling an incident in which a female passenger in India was raped, creating software to avoid government regulators, and mistreating drivers.
As the scandals added up, investors who have poured more than $15 billion into the company came to believe change wouldn’t be possible with Kalanick in charge. The crisis came to a head this week, when shareholders controlling about 40 percent of the company hand delivered a letter to Kalanick demanding that he step aside. The Waymo lawsuit was among the main reasons cited. According to the filing, Uber said it never received Levandowski’s discs, and doesn’t know if they contained any proprietary information. Levandowski, who isn’t a defendant in the case, worked at Waymo until late January 2016. He has refused to testify in the case, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Waymo argues in the court filing that the circumstances of Levandowski’s revelation to Kalanick and his destruction of the discs “raise an exceedingly strong inference” that they contain “materials that Mr. Levandowski downloaded from Waymo before leaving Waymo.” The case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc., 17-cv-00939, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).