It’s been nearly a year since the media circus surrounding Anthony Levandowski was in full swing, but the errant wunderkind is still finding himself in the news—most recently as the subject of a lengthy expose published by The New Yorker.
The piece, written by Pulitzer winner Charles Duhigg, delves into Levandowsi’s meteoric rise at the search engine behemoth, where he famously pioneered “Project Chauffeur,” Google’s then-top-secret self-driving car program.
The project put Google on the fast track for developing the new-age technology and was eventually spun out into its own company, Waymo, where Levandowski played a prominent role before abruptly leaving in 2016. When Waymo competitor Uber purchased a Levandowski-owned startup dedicated to autonomous car tech mere weeks later, Google accused their former star engineer of concocting the new company as a front to peddle trade secrets to the rideshare giant.
What resulted was a massively-watched trial—with a surprisingly quick and relatively tiny settlement—which put some of Levandowski’s more questionable business decisions on public display. But, ensconced in the then-still-friendly walls of the Google compound, the engineer extraordinaire was purportedly up to behavior equally as morally dubious—and much more outwardly dangerous.
According to Duhigg’s report, Levandowski was well-known, and often promoted, at Google for taking risks, many of which involved working around or flat-out ignoring the company’s bureaucratic structure. That included one move he made in 2011, while technically out on paternity leave, when he apparently modified the software on some experimental self-driving vehicles, allowing the cars to range outside of the otherwise strictly geofenced zones where Google was testing them.
When confronted by a fellow employee about the unreported tweak, Levandowski responded by insisting the two take a ride together in one of the unleashed vehicles. It would not end well—at least for one unlucky driver on the road that day.
Levandowski was well-known, and often promoted, at Google for taking risks, many of which involved working around or flat-out ignoring the company’s bureaucratic structure.
The self-driving Prius reportedly struggled in its attempt to merge onto a busy California freeway, accidentally boxing in a nearby Camry. Quickly running out of space, the Camry driver merged into the shoulder instead, but soon was forced to jerk back to the left, in an attempt to avoid a guardrail. The sudden moves sent the car spinning across several lanes of the freeway, Duhigg’s report notes.
Meanwhile, Levandowski, now commandeering the autonomous car, also had to maneuver out of harm’s way, with a quick swerve that reportedly caused extensive injuries to his co-worker’s back.
Whether the driver of the Camry was okay isn’t known. Instead of stopping to check on the situation, the two Google employees simply continued traveling right on down the road. They similarly failed to report the incident to the authorities—a move that was passable at the time but is now illegal in the state of California. (A 2014 law requires all roadway episodes involving a self-driving car to be reported to the CA DMV.)
Indeed, upon his return to the office, Levandowski purportedly basked in the glow of the would-be accident, sending out an email to co-workers, titled “Prius vs. Camry,” with dashcam footage of the incident. And he apparently doubled-down on the feel-good takeaway later, calling the event an “invaluable source of data” for the autonomous ride, according to Duhigg’s report.
But close watchers of Silicon Valley should perhaps not be surprised by the incident—or the way it was handled. Tech world residents revel in their image as disruptors, with most, including Levandowski, believing that such extreme actions are the only way to keep the world at large moving forward.
“If it’s your job to advance technology, safety cannot be your number one concern,” Levandowski put it to Duhigg. “If it is, you’ll never do anything. It’s always safer to leave the car in the driveway. You’ll never learn from a real mistake.”