You’ve probably heard about the legal morass involving Google (ahem, I mean Alphabet’s spin off Waymo) and Uber. It’s been surprisingly big news and has a lot of interesting implications for high tech business practices.

I take a very personal and keen interest in the specific business of autonomous vehicles so when a deposition was filed yesterday in which Larry Page, one of the Google founders, is asked a lot of questions about the autonomous vehicle business, I read the entire thing! It can be found here. I read every word of it and found it fascinating! But if you don’t want to slog through hours of questioning, I’ll share some of it that I found especially interesting.

Not only was there a lot of interesting insight into how the top level of management in the autonomous vehicle industry works, but there were many other well-known people involved too. For example, there’s Chris Urmson who has started the company Aurora Innovation which seems to have its own bit of controversy. It also stars Sebastian Thrun, who led the first DARPA Challenge winning team and now teaches me all kinds of interesting robotics topics as the founder, CEO, and star professor of Udacity. Finally the main antagonist of the plot is Anthony Levondowski. You may have heard of him in connection to this lawsuit business recently but I’ve been a fan for years since I first saw "Ghostrider", his entry in the DARPA Challenge. What’s extraordinary about this entry is that it is an autonomous motorcycle. The chutzpah of this outrageous objective was so striking to me that I have been deeply inspired by it. Check out this 3 minute video of Levondowski explaining with complete conviction why an autonomous motorcycle is much less stupid than you might imagine. As you watch this keep in mind that this guy parlayed that autonomous motorcycle into a career that picked up a $100 million bonus from his time managing Google’s autonomous car project. And that is what a lot of the fuss is about.

Let’s turn to the deposition and Larry Page’s own words.

Uber Lawyer: Do you still have—does your company still have the investment in Uber?

Page: Yes.

Uber Lawyer: Having thought about it maybe a little bit, any idea what the amount of the investment is today?

Page: It’s a big number.

That’s interesting to be reminded of the fact that Google, who is suing Uber (or Otto or something) is a huge investor in the defendant. That’s kind of odd, right?

Here the question itself is extremely interesting even if the answer is not.

Otto Lawyer: Do you remember Chris Urmson ever saying to people at Google that Anthony Levandowski needed to be fired because he was trying to sell a group en masse to Uber?

Page: No, I do not remember that.

Again the next question is also interesting in sorting out the topic.

Otto Lawyer: Are you aware that Google’s accusation today is that six weeks before this e-mail, before Mr. Levandowski resigned, he’s accused of having downloaded an extensive volume of information from Google?

Page: Yeah.

Ok, so Levandowski is accused of taking data?

Otto Lawyer: But you were aware, as of January 27th, 2016, that people at — on the Chauffeur team believed that Anthony Levandowski was trying to recruit as many as dozens of people from the team; right?

Page: I don’t know. I mean, I got this e-mail. Like, I don’t know that that means it’s all true. And there was a lot of emotion around, like, the day after he left.

Or maybe he’s accused of trying to steal all Google’s personnel? And the final quote I’ll cite to set the stage.

Uber Lawyer: What is your understanding of what Uber did that led to them being sued?

Page: Well, I mean, I think that Otto, the company, obviously, in my understanding, there is a poaching claim. There is a trade secret claim. There’s files that are at issue. There’s knowledge of that potentially by Uber at a pretty early stage. And then there’s a very large price paid to a company that existed for a very short time in combination with that.

Although it’s not especially good, that’s about as good of a summary of this mess that I’m aware of.

There was definitely a lot of legal posturing and punting.

Uber Lawyer: In your view, as CEO of the company, are employees allowed to have conversations with third parties about start-ups that they might want to form?

Other Lawyer: Objection to form.

Page: If I was asked that question, I would ask my lawyer, and I’d have them talk to them.

While I find this fascinating because I’m interested in the business of autonomous vehicles, I also find it sad that this kind of suit is seeing such notoriety. Autonomous vehicles are going to be hard enough without this kind of conspecific fighting.

Page: I mean, I think however many years we’ve been running Google/Alphabet, we’ve never had to bring a case like this before, which is, you know, a lot of years and a lot of employees.

This deposition is full of innuendo about the office politics of the autonomous vehicle world. There’s lots of stuff involving Sebastian Thrun. There is also a lots of redacted stuff that seems quite juicy. It is made quite clear that Anthony Levondowski does not like Chris Urmson. From an email from Levondowski that Page reviews: "There’s just too much BS with Chris." And Page believes there is tension between Levondowski and Bryan Salesky. And John Krafcik. In an email to Page from Thrun referring to Levondowski: "If he is the single leader, a good number of team members will leave." I could imagine this caricature of the leadership dissuading some new talent who haven’t made up their mind about what sector to work in.

The following paints a picture of either Levondowski being quite terrible to work with or quite maligned. Larry cleverly averages to hedge.

Uber Lawyer: You mentioned earlier that Mr. Levandowski had a negative impact on the autonomous driving?

Page: I said may have had a negative impact.

Uber Lawyer: You said "may have"?

Page: (Nods head.)

Uber Lawyer: All right. Well, then let me clarify. Sitting here today, is it your view that Mr. Levandowski had a negative impact on Project Chauffeur, or are you not sure?

Page: I already testified I think it could be — go either way.

Pressed further on this issue…

Page: I mean, I think there’s a variety of opinions on that point, and I tried to listen to all of them.

Uber Lawyer: What — what was your opinion?

Page: Well, I usually try to average them. And so they averaged to roughly 0, I think.


Page: …the risk of it was [Levondowski] getting along with the other—rest of the team and being able to work productively with other people, which he had a mixed reputation about.

I found this bit quite interesting as I have wondered this exact question. It seems obvious, but I have some hypothetical reasons why it may not be.

Uber Lawyer: Are autonomous vehicles important to Google?

Page: Well, I… yeah, I guess… they’re part of Alphabet, not Google.

Uber Lawyer: Are autonomous vehicles important to Alphabet?

Page: I mean, I think it’s a scenario where, you know, we’re obviously investing a lot in. And then, you know, it’s one of the things we work pretty hard on.

Uber Lawyer: Why?

Page: I think a lot of people die on highways, and I think people spend a lot of time driving. I think it’s an important area.

After that answer, I still have questions. Apparently Page is kind of unsure too.

Uber Lawyer: What is Waymo worth today?

Page: Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that.

Finally this deposition was filled with unintentional humor.

Uber Lawyer: Do you recall that a year or so before Mr. Levondowski left, he announced that he was going to leave?

Page: I mean, I wish I had a penny for every time employees do that and don’t go.

I’m pretty sure you’ve got $700k dollars for every employee Google’s has. Feel free to give me the balance, Larry!

Uber Lawyer: You don’t remember calling Mr. Levandowski on his personal cell phone?

Page: No. It’s possible, though. I don’t remember everyone that I call.

Oh come now, after 8 years, I was finally able to delete my call history from Google Voice just a couple of months ago. Seriously, they just added this function!

Here’s a funny example of "Ask a dumb question…"

Uber Lawyer: You say, [Levondowski’s contribution] didn’t work well at all. What makes you say that? Because he left shortly after this e-mail?

Page: Yeah, so — and now I’m being deposed about, so that’s probably enough outcomes.

This next bit is mind blowing. Check out the lawyer from Otto getting Larry Page’s name wrong!

Otto Lawyer: Hi, Mr. Brin. We haven’t met before. My name is …. I represent an entity called Otto Trucking.

Alphabet Lawyer: Mr. Page.

Otto Lawyer: Mr. Page. It’s — the names are used so interchangeably in the market. Mr. Page.

And immediately follows with this bit of punchy inquiry.

Otto Lawyer: Have you ever heard of Otto Trucking?

Page: I mean, I’ve heard of Otto.

Otto Lawyer: Have you ever heard of Otto Trucking, that company specifically?

Page: I’m not sure. Is there a difference between Otto and Otto Trucking?

Otto Lawyer: Well, what do you understand Otto to be?

Page: Sorry. Today I see it as part of Uber, I suppose.

Otto Lawyer: Okay. Would it surprise you to learn that Otto Trucking today is not part of Uber?

Page: I don’t know.

Otto Lawyer: Would it surprise you?

Page: Depends what Otto Trucking is, I suppose.

Otto Lawyer: Do you know what Otto Trucking is?

Page: Apparently not, I guess.

What’s really interesting to contemplate is that he did the name mistake intentionally, maybe to mess with Page. He’s certainly no fool elsewhere in the deposition. Check it out.

Otto Lawyer: Do you know who he is?

Page: He is—yeah, he’s an executive for the company.

Otto Lawyer: Okay. Well, previously, I—if I remember correctly, you couldn’t recall who was involved in [redacted]

Later he even smoothly brings in this.

Otto Lawyer: Did you ever talk to Sergey Brin about Anthony Levandowski?

I was a little disappointed to hear Larry confess he didn’t really know what Subversion was. I found this specific exchange amusing.

Otto Lawyer: Do you know the way that Google typically retains things, like source code materials and design specifications, and things like that?

Page: Yeah, I’m not that familiar with how we do that.

Otto Lawyer: Is there an online repository, or do—do you even know that?

Page: I mean, there’s some code-based repository thingy.

My conclusion about this topic is that I find it very interesting to get a peek into this world (so that’s what people with $50e9 are like). I am also very interested in how autonomous vehicles feature into the story. But my conclusion is that I don’t really know much more than before. I think I do have some new things to worry about with respect to this technology. It’s definitely interesting what a high profile mess this is making. It’s interesting to consider that autonomous vehicle talent and expertise are the scarce resources which are being fought over in this case. I will optimistically view that as a good sign that my recent educational investment was a good one. I just hope it’s not too detrimental for the technology itself.