It’s time to admit it: Uber employees sometimes send inartful electronic communications. On the third day of the Waymo v. Uber trade secrets trial, Waymo’s legal team grilled former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about a series of suspicious sounding text messages and emails. When former Google employee and now senior Uber engineering director Lior Ron testified, he also got the, “What the **** were you thinking when you sent this?” treatment from Waymo lawyers.
If Waymo’s opening arguments are to be believed, these messages show that Uber is a company willing to cut corners to win, no matter the cost. Most of them are between Kalanick, Ron, and the man Waymo alleges made off with its intellectual property, Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski is a former Google self-driving car engineer who Waymo says stole vital documents containing proprietary laser tech trade secrets before starting his own autonomous truck company, Otto—which was acquired by Uber just a few months later. Kalanick would become Levandowski’s boss; Ron was his Otto co-founder, and moved with him to Uber.
But today, Waymo lawyers did not quite connect the dots between the messages that sounded bad and the truly illegal theft of the company’s trade secrets. To win this case, Waymo will need to prove that Uber is full of snakes—and that the ride-hailing company used Waymo intellectual property in its self-driving cars.
Explaining Away the Texts
From Waymo’s opening arguments, the self-driving car company has tried to establish that Uber is made up of some bad people, willing to win at all costs. Communications between Kalanick, Levandowski, and Ron, plus internal Uber notes recording Kalanick’s actions during meetings, have formed the backbone for this argument. The messages that rolled out in court today included:
Kalanick to Levandowski, “burn the village”
Levandowski to Kalanick: “I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is first looser [sic]”
Kalanick during a meeting, according to internal Uber notes: “Cheat codes, find them, use them.”
Levandowski to Kalanick: “Here’s the speech you need to give ;-),” plus a link to Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech from Wall Street
Levandowski to Ron: “delete after use”
During his testimony, a collected Kalanick managed to provide seemingly reasonable explanations for his own sketchy messages. He said he couldn’t recall what “the village” was—he sent that one nearly two years ago—and that he actually appreciated Levandowski’s sentiments about losing. (He had first heard the phrase from a high school football coach, natch.) And sure, the former Uber CEO had seen Wall Street.
As for the “cheat codes”: Kalanick said his Uber team used the term to refer to “elegant solutions to problems that haven’t been thought of.” He gave an example. Tesla owners pay a premium to purchase their vehicles, which makes Tesla money. Good for Elon Musk! But Tesla continues to bring in value from its cars even after they’re sold, because it keeps collecting data from the vehicles’ built-in sensors. Then it uses that data to train its autonomous driving technology—making money off its money. “We would consider that a cheat code,” Kalanick said.
Kalanick also testified that Uber’s autonomous ambitions vexed Google CEO Larry Page. “You’re taking our people, you’re taking our IP,” Kalanick says Page complained to him, after Uber launched its self-driving R&D center in Pittsburgh in 2015.
“We are recruiting a lot of your people—I think your people can work where they want to work—but your people are not your IP,” Kalanick says he responded. His testimony conveniently mirrored two big themes Uber lawyers have presented to the jury thus far: that Waymo is suing the ridehail company because it’s nervous about the competition, and that a finding against Uber in this case could make it difficult for employees to switch jobs without fears of trade secret lawsuits.
When Waymo lawyers asked Ron why Levandowski continually asked him to delete their communications, Ron waved these messages away, too. He cast the requests as just another of the self-driving engineer’s quirks. “He was a discreet person,” Ron said.
No, this does not neatly explain away why Uber employees were so fond of deleting communications. (Another Uber analyst testifying Wednesday said Levandowski and Kalanick asked her to do the same.) But Waymo hasn’t yet drawn a firm connection between those deletions and the alleged theft of their eight trade secrets.
That dot-connecting might happen behind closed doors. The court sessions where lawyers present the nitty-gritty of their trade secrets case are not open to the public, because Waymo couldn’t claim they were trade secrets if they didn’t attempt to protect them.
Today’s proceedings also revealed an interesting bit of self-driving industry scuttlebutt: Ron testified that he and Levandowski temporarily reached a “verbal agreement” with Lyft to move their nascent startup there, instead of Uber. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.) He also testified that he and Levandowski negotiated with Google CEO Larry Page to build a self-driving truck project within the company until just a few days before Levandowski left in January 2016. And Uber lawyers showed off communications that demonstrated the Otto team was playing techie hardball even with Uber. “We need to have hard terms from TK [Travis Kalanick]… No compromises,” Levandowski wrote in a January 2016 message, before he had officially left Waymo. “Or else we destroy him.”
The story of how Otto got to Uber, then, is looking less Oceans 11 and more Spy vs. Spy, with a series of crafty, crafty tech men—Uber’s Kalanick, Google employees Levandowski and Ron, Google CEO Page, and maybe even Lyft CEO Logan Green—fighting like dizzied long-beaked thingers. For a moment, each thought they had outfoxed the others.