Just because Waymo settled its high profile lidar trade secrets case against Uber earlier this month, it doesn’t mean Anthony Levandowski is out of the spotlight. The U.S. Justice Department could still file criminal charges against the ex-Waymo engineer for the alleged theft of technical documents from his former employer. And then there’s the question of what Levandowski is planning to do next: Will he use his vast experience with autonomous vehicles to launch another startup—and make a comeback?
During a deposition last April, Levandowski did not want his experience and plans scrutinized. When Waymo lawyers asked him hundreds of questions, mostly about his activities at Waymo and Uber, Levandowski took the Fifth, to avoid answering questions that might incriminate him. There was, however, one project he was eager to talk about: GhostRider.
“What was your entry into the  DARPA Challenge?” asked one lawyer, referring to the Pentagon’s famous $1 million self-driving vehicle competition that kickstarted the entire industry. “The entry was called GhostRider, and it was a two-wheeled motorcycle,” replied Levandowski. “It was the first of its kind... [and] frankly, a pretty crazy idea.”
Building GhostRider cast Levandowski as a robotics wunderkind, secured his place at a follow-up DARPA Grand Challenge, and ultimately enabled him to build Google’s first self-driving car—a step that would later make him a multimillionaire. In 2007, Levandowski immortalized his role as an autonomous vehicle pioneer by donating GhostRider to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Levandowski, who has been profiled numerous times, has discussed the project before. And yet GhostRider’s full story has never been told. In particular, it seems the riderless motorbike that launched Levandowski’s career was lucky to race in the first DARPA Grand Challenge at all.
IEEE Spectrum has pieced together GhostRider’s history from new and contemporary interviews with Levandowski, as well as records that include a 14-year-old press kit—a glossy white folder with the words “GHOSTRIDER ROBOT” on the cover—recently discovered in a box of old files by a Spectrum editor.
A press kit prepared by the Blue Team for the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge included a slide deck on the project’s history, technology, and future plans.
Levandowski first heard about DARPA’s Grand Challenge while a graduate engineering student at the University of California at Berkeley in 2002. He decided immediately he wanted to enter the race.
While brainstorming in a hot tub, Levandowski and his friend Randy Miller came up with a bunch of ideas, including riderless motorbikes and a robotic forklift. “But the idea for a motorbike got cemented when we were driving back from a Grand Challenge conference and a bunch of motorcycles went around us on the freeway,” Levandowski said in an interview last week.
The motorbike, originally a Honda XR, was light enough to be loaded into a pickup, and for Levandowski to physically pick it up when it inevitably fell over. The bike was also one of the cheapest vehicles to star in any of DARPA’s Grand Challenges, with Levandowski estimating the multi-year project at around $100,000. The money came from his own pocket and also from corporate sponsors and individual donors.
“People gave money through PayPal, ten bucks here, a hundred bucks here,” he said, adding, “It was a bit like an early Kickstarter.”
Anthony Levandowski transformed his tiny garage into a robotics lab while working on GhostRider.Photo: Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images
Levandowski began building the self-driving motorbike in his own garage near Berkeley, gathering together half a dozen fellow engineering students to help. The volunteers were paid in burritos and some of them even eventually moved in. The group would be called the Blue Team, a reference to the friendly team in military exercises. They named their robot bike Dexterit.
One of the members of Blue Team, Bryon Majusiak, who now builds agricultural robots, remembers getting a call from Levandowski at 11 one night to help unload the motorbike. “He was so impressed that I actually showed up and I started with him all the time,” Majusiak remembers.
The first task for the Blue Team was installing servos to control gas, clutch, and brake. A dc motor and worm gear reducer operated the handlebars. A lead-acid battery powered the electronics. Levandowski went through a couple of Honda bikes before settling on a Yamaha 125 for the first Grand Challenge. (The final GhostRider bike would be a child’s Yamaha 90 dirt bike, chosen for its automatic clutch that Levandowski called a “lifesaver.”)
Once the mechanical controls were installed, the Blue Team faced its hardest challenge. “To get a car to move down the street, you can kind of apply a little bit of accelerator and not steer, and the vehicle will do that,” Levandowski said in his deposition. “To get a motorcycle to move forward, you have to build a lot of technology beforehand to make it able to just drive in a straight line.” He added, “It turned out that the complexities and challenges of adding the balancing before you could start testing all of the other navigation and optical [systems] were hard.”
At one point in early 2003, after struggling to make progress, Levandowski remembers telling his team that if they could not get Dexterit to travel a mile [1.6 kilometers] before the next Sunday, he was going to abandon the project.
But then they had a breakthrough, an elegant solution to the twin problems of balancing and turning. Instead of shifting weight on the bike to balance it like a human rider, the Blue Team realized that steering the Yamaha slightly in the direction it was tipping would create a force to balance gravity.
“Counter-steering creates centripetal acceleration, which causes a torque in the other direction,” Levandowski told me. “You then balance that back and forth to keep going straight.”
Turning was accomplished by allowing the motorcycle to lean into a curve while keeping the handlebars straight. In a video from 2003 or 2004, an early version of the bike can be seen balancing itself while stationary in a driveway. In a later video, a more advanced version drives in circles on a lawn.
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.