A few days ago I wrote a post about the extraordinary glimpse into the top level of autonomous vehicle management afforded by the recent deposition of Alphabet CEO, Larry Page. Today I was equally captivated by the recently released deposition of former Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick. You can read it yourself here but again I’ll give you what I thought were the highlights.

A quick recap - Uber seems to have hired Anthony Levandowski and a coherent team from Google but the transition vector from Google to independent company Otto to Uber is muddled and sprinkled with intrigue. Primarily at issue is Levandowski’s apparent possession of some kind of data archive of proprietary information from his former employer, the plaintiff.

To start with, Kalanick seems earnest defending his engineering team, especially James Haslam, leader of Uber’s laser team who never worked at Google. I found this convincing.

TK: To be accused of doing something that he didn’t do when he put in his own — his own mind, his own effort to make something he was proud of was — was an emotional thing for him, and I think for a lot of people.

Kalanick seems believably emphatic about the fact that he really didn’t want to find Google’s tech in his shop. He says this kind of stuff in several places.

Waymo Lawyer: What did you say to Mr. Levandowski on [the topic of bringing data from a previous employer]?

TK: I made it very clear to him that we — I made it very — well, the first question is, Did anything make it to Uber? And he made it very clear to me that absolutely nothing that he downloaded made it to Uber in any way. And the second part is, I made it very clear to him how important it was to me that that was the case and that we would look into everything, every server, every person at the company, to make sure that that was true.

Indeed, the lawyers are blurring this way more than Kalanick is.

TK: I remember being very clear with Mr. Levandowski and with others in the room my desire for Uber and the Court to be able to get to the bottom of this and get to the facts.

One thing I found interesting is the insight into culture and work/life balance this testimony provided. Most seems to properly only apply to the millionaires' cadres.

Waymo Lawyer: People work from home at Uber all the time, too, don’t they?

TK: Yes.

Waymo Lawyer: How common a practice is that, generally?

TK: More common than I would like.

The Waymo lawyer sets up Kalanick with a hypothetical situation where the roles are reversed and one of his engineers leaves with proprietary stuff to a competitor and yet still hassles Kalanick for a bonus.

TK: I would respond pretty seriously to that kind of discussion.

Then some more needling by Waymo. Kalanick zings right back.

TK: Look, I certainly wouldn’t wait a year to do something about it.

This seems to be an important point of substance in the case.

Waymo Laywer: Fair to say you came away with the impression that he didn’t need to use those documents or didn’t disclose those documents in connection with getting his bonus?

TK: Correct.

The documents being related to the bonus later is coined by Kalanick himself as "the bonus explanation" (of why the documents were taken). But I feel it was pretty well established that the documents were not used to pressure Google or to advance Uber. If there really was a sloppy trail of them on Levandowski’s part, nothing substantive came of it. Except maybe this lawsuit.

There’s an interesting episode discussed where Kalanick is forced to give up his phone for a couple of hours. No big deal, but consider all his text messages were extracted as part of some court order. To me this is fine to say, if you’ve done nothing wrong it won’t be a problem, but what if there was other private or sensitive communication? Eek.

Here is some insight into why Uber is interested in autonomous vehicles at all.

Waymo Lawyer: …AV technology represents an existential threat to Uber’s business model.

TK: I would say it differently. I would say that it is—in order for Uber to exist in the future, we will likely need to be a leader in the AV, autonomous vehicle, space.

Waymo Lawyer: And why is that?

TK: Because autonomous vehicles are going to be far safer than human-driven vehicles. And a service that’s very safe compared to human-driven vehicles is going to be one that consumers want. And it will also ultimately be far cheaper than a human-driven vehicle. And consumers that can get safer rides far cheaper are going to be the consumer—those consumers are going to go to the service that provides that. And if you don’t provide that, I don’t believe you’re going to be able to sustain your business.

Kalanick well understands the dearth of experienced people in this field.

Waymo Lawyer: Why are they in high demand?

TK: Because, like, there are only so many people who are really good at machine learning as it relates to perception software, and there’s a lot more demand for those people than there is people that can do it. And so the price goes up.

This line from some internal communication was very poignant for me. Remember, Levandowski is no idiot; he knows Google’s AV program as well as anyone.

Waymo Lawyer: Quote, Levandowski says that our biggest threat is Google, but also doesn’t have faith in Google pulling it off.

That’s quite an extraordinary revelation, that Levandowski does not have confidence in a successful outcome for Google’s AV initiative.

Another interesting bit of insight I discovered is that at one time (maybe not now) Uber was working on an in-house LIDAR.

And then there is this comment which I believe refers to a Google employee or board member who is on the board of Uber and resigning over potential conflicts because…

TK: He said that Google is intending to compete with Uber in the ridesharing space. And that the efforts were substantive enough and serious enough that he felt compelled to tell us that that was happening.

Interesting. Is Google just messing with Uber?

This testimony is quite different from Larry Page’s. Very little is redacted, nothing in the entire first half. Contra popular media portrayals, Kalanick seems very polite and reasonable. He says "please" and generally seems to show patience with the lawyers. He may be an insufferable upper class twit in normal contexts, but knowing him only from this deposition, I found him intelligent, sincere, well-spoken, and competent.

It’s interesting that in all these depositions, the deponent (which seems to be a real word) can basically get out of answering any question if the answer involved some interaction in which a lawyer was present. So if you’re an uber-rich guy like Travis or Larry, it seems you could always have one lurking. If I ever become an oligarch and need an effective lawyer, I’m hiring the intense Ms. Karen Dunn, Kalanick’s lawyer, who really put on an impressive show of how to stand her client’s legal ground.

There were several moments which were kind of funny.

TK: I mean, I don’t—I don’t know if it’s an Excel spreadsheet, but I recognize that it’s a piece of paper that has words on it.

And some funny irony with Google, the plaintiff.

Waymo Lawyer: Is there a application that [your assistant] uses?

TK: It’s called — it’s called Google Calendar. I’m sure your client would be happy about that.

Waymo Lawyer: Is there any particular software in your company for this or--

TK: My guess is, it’s all Google Docs.

Lawyer: Did you have any conversation during this break about your testimony with Counsel?

TK: I did not… I watched YouTube videos.

I felt like I learned a bit more from this testimony than the previous one. However, I still feel like much of the full story has yet to be told.

2017-08-15 UPDATE

El Reg just posted a ton of text messages between Kalanick and Levandowski. I found it a bit too voyeuristic and not enlightening enough to comment further on. But check it out if you’re into that.

2018-02-13 UPDATE

What a circus. Looks like it’s finally over though. Here is a good article describing the final body count. To me the whole fiasco (I don’t know whom to blame really) is unforgivable for diverting attention and resources from pursuing the mission of preventing idiot humans from controlling lethal heavy machinery in public.

2018-08-27 UPDATE

WTF? Why has the US Attorney’s North California office filed criminal charges against Levandowski in this matter? Former Uber Self-Driving Car Executive Indicted For Alleged Theft Of Trade Secrets From Google The case is closed. Who cares? What would motivate a public prosecutor to dig up this old corpse? Something doesn’t smell right! It’s either absurdly assiduous of the prosecutor to go after this (as part of everything) or it’s very lazy to go after this dead case which has already been reviewed to death. Super weird. I’m thinking powerful forces messing with AL.

2020-08-05 UPDATE

OMGWTF! This case seems to have concluded with Levandowski sentenced to 18 months in jail! I find this very chilling and creepy. This will not do good things to innovation and progress if engineers have to be worried about hard jail time for working so intently that they have repos checked out on too many devices to keep track of (been there - done that!). Also, Levandowski is damn good — it’s incontrovertible. Setting him personally back will probably brutally kill and maim thousands of people by delaying the eradication of idiot drivers.