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Revealed: The secret CEO texts that tell the tale of Uber-Waymo's self-driving tech spat

Court docs give insight into execs' relationship

By Kieren McCarthy, 15 Aug 2017

Analysis Hundreds of unsealed text messages between former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and self-driving engineer Anthony Levandowski have revealed an intriguing insight into the relationship between the two – and raised more questions about whether they conspired against Levandowski's former employer.

Released into the public domain as part of enforced discovery in the ongoing lawsuit between Uber and Google's autonomous vehicle designer Waymo, the texts [PDF] show frequent contact between the two as well as clandestine meet-ups and what would appear to be lengthy discussions about self-driving technology as well as broader business strategy.

Critically, however, there are large gaps in the record. No texts before 13 February 2016 have been produced – something that Waymo's lawyers are particularly suspicious about - and Kalanick's texts and responses end just one month later, leaving 11 months of one-sided conversations from Levandowski.

Those missing texts represent "significant and inexplicable gaps" say Waymo's lawyers who have been chasing Uber since May to hand over the messages after a judge ordered them to do so. The lawyers point out [PDF] that they know of at least two meetings between the two men prior to February 2016: one at Uber HQ in December 2015 and another during the weekend of 2 January 2016.

Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016 and set up his own self-driving truck company, Ottomotto, that was bought by Uber for $680m in August 2016.

Waymo suspects Levandowski conspired with Kalanick while still at Waymo, and alleges Levandowski shared 4,000 documents that he stole from Waymo with Uber on critical self-driving technology. Waymo also claims that the creation of Otto Trucking was little more than an elaborate corporate shell game to put distance between Uber and Levandowski and that its purchase was effective a pay-off for stealing technology and engineers for Uber.

Hmmmm

For that reason it is extremely suspicious that no texts before February 2016 have been released, especially since the first available texts point to clear familiarity between the two men.

"Good hangin," says Kalanick on 13 February. Levandowski gets back: "Was awesome. Lots more to come."

Kalanick's lawyers claim that the reason no more texts from him appear after March 2016 is because he set his phone to auto-delete messages after 30 days: something that Waymo's lawyers want proof of.

In the back-and-forth conversations that do exist for the following month, it is clear that both men met up repeatedly in the evening to discuss things ranging from tax issues to self-driving technology to future business plans. Levandowski gives Kalanick a login to his website; the two discuss connecting up executives from their two companies.

In March, as Kalanick's texts end, Levandowski repeatedly references meeting up at the "secret side door" – presumably at Uber's headquarters – in order to chat to the CEO while avoiding being noticed. The conversations are clearly about the subsequent acquisition of Ottomotto – but coming just two months after Levandowski abruptly and unexpectedly left Waymo, and just one month after the new company was set up, they look extremely suspicious.

Among the inside-baseball snippets that have emerged is that fact that Uber was looking to work with Google on self-driving tech but discussions fell apart. It's not clear why but it would well be related to Google's discovery of Levandowski's alleged theft of 4,000 documents. And that both Kalanick and Levandowski were closely following Tesla and its self-driving efforts.

Upshot

All in all, the 400 or so texts produce more questions that answers. It is clear that the two had a close relationship and it lends weight to Google's suspicions that they had been colluding with each other long before Levandowski left Waymo. Even with this release, much of the related and relevant information remains redacted.

Without the pre-February texts however, that is speculative. Kalanick's missing messages are also extremely convenient for him although it is very possible that the Uber CEO improved his operational security at some point in 2016 given the whirlwind of accusation and legal threats surrounding him and his company. Waymo's lawyers suspect he may have deleted them manually after the lawsuit was launched.

What is clear is that the two worked tightly together, including sharing strategic goals, and often spent evenings together, pointing to a friendship that went beyond pure work issues.

Waymo's laywers meanwhile will keep digging hoping to turn up something that can prove their case and potentially expose Uber to huge damages and possible criminal investigations. ®

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