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Pronto vows to deliver despite charges against founder

Anthony Levandowski
Former Pronto CEO Anthony Levandowski left the company in August after being charged with stealing trade secrets from Alphabet-owned Waymo. Levandowski also co-founded the self-driving truck start-up Otto.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Self-driving start-up Pronto has said it will deliver its flagship product to customers this year despite being thrown into crisis last Tuesday when Anthony Levandowski, its founder and chief executive, was charged on 33 counts of theft or attempted theft from Google.

“We have deadlines and we are going to meet them — what’s going on isn’t going to affect that,” Robbie Miller, the head of safety who took the reins as chief executive, said.

Pronto’s first product, CoPilot, is “Level 2” driver-assist technology giving commercial trucks a set of cameras and predictive analytics software designed to make driving safer. The product is focused on vehicles on the road today rather than the fully autonomous “Level 4” technology competitors such as Waymo and Zoox are aiming to achieve.

“Is it more compelling to just take the driver out of vehicle? Clearly,” Miller said. “The issue is, the technology is not there yet.”

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Allegations against Levandowski first emerged in 2017 when Waymo — which started life as Google’s self-driving car project — sued his then employer, Uber, claiming that he had stolen information months before his departure. Uber paid roughly $250 million in shares to settle. Levandowski has always denied the charges. His lawyers last week said: “None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company.”

Miller was on vacation in Bora Bora when he received the news, prompting an immediate call with senior directors. He was quickly appointed chief executive and took the first flight back to San Francisco to be with the small team of fewer than 100 employees.

The charges could have implications for big tech at a time when antitrust probes are beginning against the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Some critics believe the criminal charges from federal agents could stifle innovation, noting that the line between intellectual theft and simply using one’s experience at another company can be blurry. Others see the charges as long overdue.

Miller declined to comment on the merits. “I’m not focused on anything but delivering our product and trying to make the road safer,” he said.

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The indictment has fueled speculation that Pronto’s days could be numbered, resulting in a flight of talent or potential funding issues, as Levandowski is probably a key investor himself.

But little is known of the start-up or who backs it, and the company declined to share details beyond describing its technology as designed to be retrofitted into existing commercial fleets to make driving safer.

Pronto was founded in July 2018 and emerged from stealth mode in December, when Levandowski announced its mission and lamented that the industry had spent the last 15 years “mostly idled at the starting line”.

Miller is a first-time chief executive but has experience in the field dating back to 2007, when he worked alongside Levandowski on Google Street View, the mapping system once described by Google’s head of research as the “secret sauce” enabling it to gain an early edge in the quest to build self-driving cars.

“Throughout my career, I’ve sort of picked up jobs that no one in the history of the world has essentially had before,” he said.

After graduating with an economics degree in 2008 at Pepperdine University in Malibu — where his thesis looked at murder rates — he joined Levandowski’s mobile mapping start-up, 510 Systems. Google acquired it in 2011, naming him program manager of self-driving cars. In early 2016, he again followed Levandowski to join Otto, a self-driving trucks start-up swallowed up by Uber for a reported $680 million.

Miller has built a reputation for prioritizing safety. When he departed Uber in March 2018, he wrote a scathing email to the team calling on them to standardize better practices and reduce the testing fleet of autonomous vehicles by 85 percent. Five days later, a pedestrian was killed by one of Uber’s self-driving SUVs.

Pronto is the sixth company in which Miller and Levandowski have teamed up. Compared with their earlier work, Pronto has radically scaled back goals, focusing on technology that aids drivers rather than removing them from the equation.

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Miller declined to give specifics on how Pronto’s technology differed from what is already available in luxury cars but said it involved superior lane-keeping, cruise control, emergency braking and “much more” to help commercial drivers stay alert and go home less fatigued.

“We feel like if you were to drive with our system and then have that system taken away from you — it would be like losing air conditioning,” he said.

Fleet customers would be deploying the technology this calendar year, he promised. But the rollout is already overdue. When Pronto announced itself in December, Levandowski had said CoPilot would be ready “in early 2019.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019


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