Uber self-driving car chief moves aside amid Waymo trade secrets scandal

Anthony Levandowski is stepping aside as the lawsuit with his former employer rages on.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
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The head of Uber's self-driving car project is stepping away from the leadership role as a lawsuit embroiling Uber and his former employer Waymo relating to the theft of trade secrets continues.

Anthony Levandowski is a talented engineer who is believed to have been a key player in former Google unit Waymo's success in developing the technology. While working in Google's Street View maps unit in 2008, the engineer convinced the tech giant to take a stab at self-driving technology as part of the Google X moonshot project department.

Success followed with Google's driverless cars eventually being tested on Californian streets and the unit separating as a research and development entity. Now, Waymo has clocked millions of autonomous driving miles on US roads and has recently opened the fleet to the public for further tests.

Levandowski left Google in early 2016, setting up his own company, 280 Systems, which later became Otto. However, the lawsuit brought forward by Waymo alleges that the engineer stole 14,000 confidential files before he cleared his desk.

According to The Guardian, the stolen files included detailed maps of proprietary circuit boards and the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) system which is used in self-driving vehicles to detect obstacles and help map the vehicle's environment.

The lawsuit alleges that after pocketing a hefty payout from Google, Uber snapped up Levandowski's company for $680 million -- and the intellectual property switched hands.

While it is not yet known if these allegations are true, the engineer has stepped out his role as the head of Uber's self-driving project, Advanced Technologies group. As reported by Business Insider, in an email obtained by the publication, Levandowski said he would no longer be working on projects related to LiDAR and will instead focus on security and safety.

"As you know, I currently don't provide input on detailed LiDAR design choices," the email said. "But making this organizational change means I will have absolutely no oversight over or input into our LiDAR work. Going forward, please make sure not to include me in meetings or email threads related to LiDAR, or ask me for advice on the topic."

Robotics specialist Eric Meyhofer will take over as the leader of the group.

Uber has had more than a little bad press in recent months. The #DeleteUber campaign created in response to the firm's stance on President Trump's immigration ban, engineers making allegations of toxic workplace standards and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's less-than-professional attitude when presented with driver complaints have all made the news.

Claims that Uber conducted industrial espionage against rival Lyft also raised eyebrows, and so it is no surprise that the ride-hailing service has moved quickly to change Levandowski's role away from controlling the self-driving space -- at least until the lawsuit is concluded.

See also: Uber rejects claims iPhone app tracked users after being deleted

Earlier this week, Uber revealed a new partnership with Aurora Flight Sciences to develop a network of aerial taxis for consumers to hire in the same manner as traditional cars by 2020.

The companies hope the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which deploys in the same way as a helicopter, will cost roughly the same as a standard taxi and will help reduce congestion on city streets.

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