The epic court case between Waymo and Uber over self-driving car secrets took a tabloid turn last week, as Waymo’s lawyers filed a document containing approximately 400 text messages between Uber founder Travis Kalanick, and Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of taking thousands of files from Waymo to help build Uber’s lidar sensors.
Waymo expected the SMS messages, sent between February and December 2016, to reveal what Uber knew, and when the company knew it. Some emails do touch on technical matters—for example, one from Levandowski on 5 May saying that he was “driving to SF to meet with [Uber’s] laser guy and guide the team.”
However, Waymo’s lawyers say that there are “significant and inexplicable gaps” in the text messages, including none at all before February 13, even though the two had certainly met before. Despite this, the texts provide a rich insight into the men’s relationship, and into Uber’s plans for (and worries about) its self-driving car technology.
The Otto Acquisition
Just two weeks after Levandowski quit Google, Kalanick was already visiting the engineer’s new self-driving truck start-up, Otto. Kalanick was planning to buy Otto almost immediately but that fast pace came with issues:
2/13/2016 Kalanick: Good hangin
2/13/2016 Levandowski: It was awesome. Lots more to come. We ended up wrapping truck testing at 2.30
2/13/2016 Levandowski: We had a close call but no contact with anyone or anything
This appears to be a reference to a failure of the self-driving technology that nearly resulted in an accident. Presumably, the testing was happening at a test track, as the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) still does not allow the testing of autonomous commercial vehicles.
4/6/2016 Levandowski: Basically I’d like the freedom to move as needed on the acquisition (and take advice/guidance) but if I can close them within the range we agreed you guys are happy.
4/6/2016 Kalanick: I am super down to make sure this [is] quick lightweight and straight forward for you guys
At this point, Otto was being run from Levandowski’s home in Palo Alto. In early April, the DMV launched an investigation that had Levandowski and Kalanick worried.
4/22/2016 Kalanick: How did they find out?
4/22/2016 Levandowski: Trying to dig in, likely city of Palo Alto.
4/22/2016 Levandowski: Just wrapped with the DMV, it was the city of Palo Alto freaking out about AV trucks testing and were asked to investigate. The guys were happy with our answers and were [sic] in the clear.
Levandowski and Kalanick’s Relationship
The two men quickly formed a strong bond, but there are challenges—and advantages—when your new best friend is the CEO of the world’s largest start-up.
3/29/2016 Levandowski: I am at the secret side door, no rush
7/23/2016 Kalanick: You hungry? .. Can get some Uber Eats steak and eggs.
At these meetings, often late at night, Levandowski would explain the mysteries of self-driving technology to the Uber founder.
4/8/2016 Kalanick: Where you teach me in depth about an autonomy topic
4/8/2016 Levandowski: Yes, we should of done it. We did a bit on lasers before but need to go deep on all the topics.
In return, Kalanick dispensed management advice, such as this just before the Otto acquisition was announced:
8/12/2016 Kalanick: Three principles
8/12/2016 Kalanick: 1) don’t tell anyone about the deal before it happens, ESPECIALLY someone you’re about to fire 2) firing fast is a cultural imperative you don’t want to break except in the most extreme situations 3) get creative
Both men shared the same ambition:
9/19/2016 Levandowski: We’re going to take over the world
9/19/2016 Levandowski: One robot at a time
10/7/2016 Kalanick: Down to hang this eve and mastermind some shit
Uber Really Wanted to Partner With Google
Uber’s rivalry with Alphabet’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo is a recent thing. An earlier court filing contained an email from 2015 that showed Kalanick and Google founder Larry Page were exploring a partnership on self-driving technology. The new text messages suggest that this was still a hope over a year later.
6/13/2016 Kalanick: Just got word from Drummond that g-CO is out
6/13/2016 Levandowski: Wow, at least now we know it’s a zero sum game
David Drummond is Alphabet’s chief legal officer and was a board member of Uber until August 2016. He was the main channel of communication between the companies. “G-co” could refer to cooperation or forming a company with Google, the lack of which cemented the conflict between the two, and ultimately pushed Drummond off the board.
Uber Saw Tesla as a Huge Competitor
While Uber followed Google’s cars closely, it was Tesla and Elon Musk that the duo discussed most frequently.
9/14/2016 Levandowski: Tesla crash in January … implies Elon is lying about millions of miles without incident. We should have LDP on Tesla just to catch all the crashes that are going on.
9/22/2016: We’ve got to start calling Elon on his shit. I’m not on social media but let’s start "faketesla" and start give physics lessons about stupid shit Elon says like [saying his cars don't need lidar]
In late October, the two exchanged a flurry of tests about Musk’s announcement that all Teslas would come with all the hardware necessary for full self-driving, sometimes called Level 5.
10/20/2016 Levandowski: Elon is going to make going to [self driving] not as big of a scary thing for the public... which should be good
10/20/2016 Kalanick: Got to get software runnin
10/20/2016 Levandowski: Amen
10/20/2016 Kalanick: What do you think chances are he has Level 5 in 20% of a given city?
10/20/2016 Levandowski: For easy city
10/20/2016 Levandowski: He’s trippin’ but might/will blame regulatory as to why it’s not available
Did Uber’s Cars Have Real Problems in San Francisco?
In December 2016, Uber launched a self-driving taxi service in San Francisco, without obtaining permission from the DMV. The program lasted only a week, and was dogged by reports of Uber’s 16 cars running red lights. A single text from Levandowski to Kalanick, two days before Uber’s cars had their registrations revoked by the DMV, refers to the issue:
12/19/2016 Levandowski: Quick update on that special intersection in SF, we taped 6 red car violations within 2 hours
A source close to Uber’s operations says its engineers watched the intersection where Uber’s cars were said to have run the red light, and that this text refers to them recording a number of normal, human-operated vehicles also breaking the law. Uber has never officially admitted that its software was to blame.
This post was corrected on 15 August 2017 to fix the context of a 12/19/2016 message and on 16 August 2017 to correct the October text message dates.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.