$120 million payouts, massive egos, and prison time: The inside story of Google and Uber's war to own self-driving-cars

After years at Google, Anthony Levandowski (right) left Google to help Uber CEO Travis Kalanick build his own self-driving cars, with disastrous results.
In January 2016, self-driving auto engineer Anthony Levandowski left Google and went to Uber, where CEO Travis Kalanick wanted to produce his own robo-taxi.
Levandowski had been paused on Google in favor of Chris Urmson, his former roommate and longtime rival.
Years of fighting and indecision within the Google team - much of it revolved around Levandowski and Urmson - had made the search giant vulnerable to competition. But Uber's own effort was doomed by his own mistakes.
This story is adapted from the new book by Insider Editor-in-Chief Alex Davies "Driven: The Race for the Autonomous Car", which chronicles the chaotic creation of the self-driving industry as we know it today.
You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
On January 7, 2016, Anthony Levandowski emailed Larry Page to wish him a Happy New Year and to complain again about the status of the search giant's research project on the self-driving car.
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"Chauffeur is broken," wrote Levandowski, using the code name of the efforts he supported at the start. "We are quickly losing our technical advantage."
His team had spent seven years and billions of dollars producing nothing close to a commercial product. He and a few comrades thought Chris Urmson, who defeated Levandowski for control of the team, was too prudent when it came to using their technology and accused him of letting Google's rivals catch up.
The team's problems, however, went far beyond Urmson's cautious view of the world. As the project moved from research to development, disagreements about how their work should be commercialized - along with who would be responsible and who would redeem the biggest bonus - threatened to leave them vulnerable to competition.
Two of the team's founding members, Levandowski and Urmson, were at the center of the fight. With his talent for launching ambitious projects with remarkable speed and his disregard for the standard, Levandowski personified the Silicon Valley disruptor. Urmson was more of the academic, unwilling to start something that he couldn't be sure was absolutely safe. The people in charge at Google felt that each had a valuable skill. However, this was not Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals" who had overcome their differences to preserve the Union and win the Civil War. It was more like this war itself, where any topic of discussion could be turned into a debate, an argument, a swearing shout.
Core members of Google's self-driving team included Chris Urmson (far left) and Levandowski (far right). Courtesy David Goldwater
Levandowski, Urmson and their teammates managed to find Casus Belli in the least important places, such as the buttons that the car should have. Some wanted two buttons: green to activate the system, red to deactivate. Others thought it would be easier to just have one for on and off. They discussed whether to add new buttons or reuse the ones already in the car. They discussed how to display the speed set by the driver for the vehicle, be it as an absolute number (e.g. 70 mph) or as an offset from the speed limit (65 + 5).
"We argued about the stupidest things and wasted so much time," said chauffeur engineer Don Burnette in an interview. "How effective or meaningful was this button discussion in hindsight? It was a waste of time."
They didn't have time. By 2016, Uber's self-driving research team was hot on the heels of Google, and CEO Travis Kalanick was keen to fill the gap.
On January 27, Levandowski e-mailed Page again. "I want to sit in the driver's seat, not the front passenger seat, and right now I feel like I'm in the trunk," he wrote. He went into business for himself, he said, with a self-driving truck outfit. What he didn't say was that Uber had already agreed to buy his startup and that in a few months he would be self-driving Kalanicks - with disastrous results.
When Urmson heard the news later that day, he showed no hint of hesitation. He marched Levandowski to his desk and let him pack up his things. Then he led the 6'6 "engineer from the self-propelled office to the" public "side of the building and put him in a conference room. Then he called Human Resources to discuss the details of the resignation of the man who takes turns being his competitor, his teammate, roommate, and main competitor had been in a world they helped create.
This feature story was adapted from the new book by Insider editor-in-chief Alex Davies "Driven: The race for the autonomous car". Davies interviewed more than 120 people and spent years recording the chaotic development of the self-driving auto industry, a story of technological breakthroughs, trade secret theft, silly t-shirts and more.
Subscribe to read the full story about how bitter rivalries and minor battles derailed Google's self-driving supremacy and cost Uber the shot at the crown.
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In this article
Chris Urmson
Travis Kalanick
Anthony Levandowski

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