Controversial Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time since the ride-hailing company fired him as chief executive in June.
Taking the witness stand in a hushed San Francisco courtroom, where he was testifying at the Waymo-Uber trade secrets trial, Kalanick belied his reputation for aggression and pugnacity. His mood was subdued, his voice soft, his manner polite.
Over 30 minutes, he described his attempts to hire Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of stealing Waymo trade secrets and handing them to Uber.
The trial centers on Waymo’s claim that Uber gained illegal access to eight trade secrets found among gigabytes of data allegedly downloaded from Waymo servers and stolen by Levandowski.
Lawyers asked Kalanick about Uber’s 2016 purchase of a company called Otto, described as a driverless truck technology company formed by Levandowski while still a Waymo employee (Waymo is the driverless car arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet). Uber agreed to pay $592 million for Otto in 2016.
The idea was discussed at a January 2016 meeting that Kalanick described as a jazz-like “jam session,” but with business ideas instead of musical instruments.
Uber was way behind Waymo in the development of driverless technology, Kalanick acknowledged — especially in a laser-based sensor technology called lidar. He said he was a “big fan” of Levandowski and wanted him at Uber to push driverless technology forward.
Kalanick explained that driverless cars are an “existential” threat to Uber, because the first ride-hailing companies to replace human drivers with robot cars will reduce costs dramatically. (Google has invested in ride-hailing competitor Lyft.)
“Look, I wanted to hire Anthony and he wanted to start a company,” Kalanick said. With Otto, “he could feel like he started a company and I could feel like I had hired him.”
At first, Kalanick and another Uber executive testified, Uber planned to buy lidar units from Otto, but that idea was dropped, Kalanick said.
“We wanted somebody to build a team to make lasers,” he said.
Although he said he couldn’t remember whether laser technology was discussed at the jam session, Uber attorneys showed him a hand-scrawled note taken at the event that read, “Laser is the sauce.”
Yes, that’s my handwriting, Kalanick said.
A few weeks after the jam session, Waymo has claimed, Levandowski allegedly downloaded gigabytes of Waymo documents that included lidar trade secrets that Uber is now using in its own driverless car systems, according to Waymo’s lawsuit.
Waymo is seeking a guilty verdict and $1.8 billion.
Before Kalanick’s testimony, the judge warned Waymo’s lawyers not to imply that he was fired due, even in part, to the trade secrets controversy.
Kalanick “was removed or encouraged to leave for a long list of problems,” the judge said.