You could call him “The 2.6 Billion Dollar Man.” At least, that’s how much Waymo thinks his influence is worth.
But the tech world’s current most valuable person more commonly goes by Anthony Levandowski.
He may not be a household name, but his work will soon be known around the world: Levandowski is largely responsible for key elements of the breakthrough technology needed to run self-driving cars.
The engineer sits in the eye of a legal storm caused by an impending courtroom battle between his former employers, Uber and Waymo (Google’s self-driving arm). At stake isn’t just the $2.6 billion Waymo is asking for, but control over Levandowski’s work—and the sizable profits that come with it.
Due to kick off on December 4 in San Francisco, the suit revolves around Uber allegedly stealing trade secrets from Waymo, with Levandowski styled the thief.
But despite his outsized reputation in the coming battle, little is publically known about his history. Is he really a crook? A super-genius? A super-spy?
Who really is the man responsible for the tech world’s Trial of the Decade?
Levandowski was born in Brussels, Belgium, son of a French diplomat and an American businessman.
It wasn’t until he reached his teens that he moved to California, but it was there, in the cradle of Silicon Valley, that his passion for robotics began to blossom.
After graduating high school, where he got his first work building professional websites for clients, Levandowski enrolled in UC Berkeley in 1998, where he swiftly turned his attention to robotics. (One of his first creations was a machine that sorted Monopoly money.)
The gifted student soon moved on to bigger projects, including helping a Berkeley professor patent a virtual reality entertainment system in 2002. But that year would also mark an important occasion: his start down the path toward the merging worlds of tech and transportation.
Levandowski’s mother was the first to tell him about a contest hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research division of the Pentagon. The competition, called the DARPA Grand Challenge, invited inventors to create autonomous vehicles, which would be put to the test in a race across the expanse of desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The race was due to kick off in 2004. Levandowski got to work right away.
He and his team of fellow Berkeley alum used the two-year head start to ensure they would participate in style: the group created a self-driving motorcycle for the contest, which they nicknamed Ghostrider. The two-wheeled robot didn’t win the competition, but the machine so impressed DARPA that it ended up in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Building the bike also brought Levandowski’s attention to a few new ideas, including the secret to letting robo-vehicles “see”: Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a system of light beams that construct a “view” of the world for the machines.
The lesson in laser technology would prove to be fateful for Levandowksi—it’s the product he helped build up for Waymo, and the technology at the heart of the impending lawsuit.
Participating in the DARPA contest opened up other opportunities for Levandowski, and the young engineer was soon swept up in the burgeoning scene of Silicon Valley, eventually finding himself at Google, where he helped revolutionize the company’s work on mapping systems.
The project so enthused Google co-founder Larry Page that Levandowski’s team, headed by fellow tech world bigwig Sebastian Thrun, was given free rein to choose their next venture. The duo decided on self-driving cars.
Within a few months, they had rigged up a Prius, called the “Pribot,” to chauffeur itself around San Francisco. Within a few years, the project was much more serious, and Levandowski—along with his LiDAR technology and numerous other contributions—found himself at the nerve center of Google’s self-driving world, the venture eventually spun off as Waymo.
But the more weight his work pulled, the heavier Levandowski’s problems became.
By 2012, things had started to turn sour at Google. Levandowski was passed up for a promotion and placed under new management he didn’t agree with. He also found himself in some trouble for teaming up with a lawyer to write self-driving regulations for Nevada in order to begin running tests there, without input from Google’s legal team.
About a year later, things went from strained to strange when a company called Odin Wave—which was founded by Levandowski’s lawyer and based in an office building Levandowski owned—was discovered ordering custom parts to build LiDAR that were nearly identical to Google’s. Levandowski denied any involvement with the business, but reportedly became increasingly disinterested with work at Waymo.
By 2015, the wunderkind was seeking out new projects, including work on a flying car to be funded by Larry Page. And he was making new friends, like the charismatic co-founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick, who was on a red-hot streak after topping the rideshare industry.
The two became close over the course of that summer, sharing text messages about tech and management styles. Less than a year later, that friendship would lead to a $680 million business venture.
In the meantime, Levandowski had reportedly begun encouraging many members of his team to quit Waymo to create a self-driving start-up. And in May of 2016, he took his own advice.
Levandowski abruptly left Waymo that spring, after a winter where the company reportedly valued his self-driving project at half its true worth when comprising bonus calculations. But when he left, he took with him something much more valuable: nearly 14,000 secret files related to Waymo’s LiDAR development.
In short order, the former Waymo tech had opened his own self-driving venture, Otto, which was purchased by Uber just weeks later. And just weeks after that, the ridesharing company was launching grand autonomous experiments, and even talking about their own flying cars.
The near-immediate acquisition, and subsequent boost in Uber’s technology, sent tongues wagging—and Google investigating. The search engine giant ultimately accused Levandowski of setting up Otto as a false storefront in order to steal corporate secrets and pass them along to Uber.
The fallout since has been swift—and brutal.
Levandowski and Kalanick both lost their jobs at Uber: Kalanick for a long list of bungles as head of the company, and Levandowski for failing to cooperate in the ensuing investigation.
In the meantime, Levandowski has answered nearly every legal question asked of him by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights. (Still, this strategy won’t stop him from being called to the stand, as Judge William Alsup, who’s overseeing the trial, declared Levandowski could be asked to testify.)
Levandowski has said the silent route was best, as the case had “potential for criminal action,” and it seems the courts agreed. The suit was recently referred by Alsup to the Justice Department, and Levandowski, Kalanick, and Uber may find themselves embroiled in a federal trial soon.
The case has the potential to serve Uber a dose of its own disruptive medicine, likely leveling the company—and clearing the path for its less litigious competitors to take over—should it lose. But Waymo also has a lot on the line and could find itself at a loss, both monetarily and reputation-wise, should the gavel bang in their direction.
Regardless, the verdict will send a wave of shifting power dynamics across the worlds of business, tech, and automobiles—all stemming from the actions of one man.