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Uber Fires Self-Driving Chief Anthony Levandowski After Waymo Lawsuit

Uber has eventually fired Anthony Levandowski, the former head of its self-driving car unit, after previous threats to do so, not to mention a lengthy and strained legal battle with Google's self-driving unit Waymo.

Anthony Levandowski Steps Down From Uber

The star engineer led Uber's autonomous efforts during his stint. Levandowski had previously worked for Google before starting his own company, which was then acquired by Uber for nearly $700 million in 2016. Levandowski's actions after leaving Google is now one of the chief concerns of a closely watched lawsuit alleging the engineer of using Google's documents to help develop Uber's self-driving technology.

Stakes are high for both companies. Market analysts think autonomous driving could be worth tens of billions of dollars in the future, and Google has been hammering away at it for nearly a decade now, shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to refine its own autonomous technology. Similarly, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said that the future of his company heavily relies on self-driving technology, its current efforts — a series of self-driving operations in some parts of the country — all working toward that future.

Waymo vs. Uber

Earlier this year Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging that its star engineer unlawfully acquired thousands of LiDAR-related documents from Waymo, which it claimed was used as the basis for Uber's self-driving technology. Uber has denied such allegations against Levandowski, and it's now also trying to prove that it developed its self-driving technology on its own. What's more, Waymo is also alleging that Levandowski attempted to remove traces of those stolen documents by reformatting his laptop.

During the trial's proceedings, lawyers for Waymo took claims even further, suggesting that Otto was simply a way for Lewandowski to move the stolen documents.

Amid the high-stakes legal battle, Levandowski withdrew his involvement with anything related to self-driving this past April, with Uber relocating him to an operations role. The engineer's refusal to cooperate was the reason for his leave-taking, as stated in his termination letter. Employees who have previously reported to Levandowski will now turn to Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group.

As The New York Times reports, Uber had little choice but to remove Levandowski from the company, according to legal analysts. Uber risked tarnishing its name as it stood by the engineer, as it could imply that the company was condoning his actions.

It's also not clear what Uber's lawyers could do to prevent further damages. The company's previous request to settle the dispute in arbitration was denied, and the presiding U.S. District Court Judge instead referred the case to a U.S. Attorney. An arbitration would have kept proceedings as far away from public knowledge or the press as possible.

Both companies have shown that neither one is backing down in high-pressure tug-of-war, especially if the one who emerges victorious can have a leg up in the race for autonomous vehicle development. Needless to say, both companies have a lot to lose. For Uber, the case is worth firing its star engineer for.

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