Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, the head of its autonomous car unit, in the latest in a string of embarrassments for the company.
Levandowski joined Uber after leaving Google's self-driving car spin-off Waymo to form his own self-driving vehicle development start-up, called Otto. It was acquired last year by Uber, just months after he had set it up.
However, Google sued Uber in February, claiming that its ex-engineer had stolen as many as 14,000 internal documents on his way out. He was fired by Uber after failing to comply with a court order to hand them over, invoking his Fifth Amendment right (protecting individuals from self-incrimination).
The documents allegedly dealt with Waymo's LiDAR (literally ‘light radar') technology, which bounces light off of objects to draw a high-definition 3D map of the surrounding area. The technology is used by self-driving cars so that they can ‘see' the road. It is not exclusive to Waymo, but the company argues that Uber's under-development system closely copies its own designs.
Uber had been working on a multi-lens LiDAR array, code-named Fuji; its existing autonomous cars use off-the-shelf LiDAR systems from companies like Velodyne. The fact that it was working on an unnamed second system - which used a single lens, like Waymo's solution - was revealed during a deposition by an employee on the 13 April.
An Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that the second system was never developed into a working prototype, and only consisted of unassembled parts, which were shown to Waymo.
Levandowski's refusal to co-operate was undoubtedly hurting Uber's position in court. The company has not denied that he took the documents; the company's attorney, Arturo Gonzalez, told Reuters, "We can fire him but we still don't get the documents."
In a termination letter, dated the 26 May, Uber general counsel Salle Yoo cited Levandowski's failure to comply with an earlier court order, which banned him from working with LiDAR, as another reason for his firing - although he had been officially removed from the project in April.
The termination letter also said that Uber required Levandowski to have "returned or destroyed all property and confidential information belonging to any prior employer" as a condition of his employment, which it is pretty clear that he didn't do.
Eric Meyhofer replaced Levandowski as the head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group last month. Meyhofer has been with Uber since 2015, and was a co-founder of Carnegie Robotics.
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