Mar 16, 2017 · 10 minutes


"If we are not tied for first, then the person who is in first, or the entity that's in first, then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher-quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing," -- Travis Kalanick on self-driving cars in 2016

Silicon Valley likes to talk about “mafias”: a diaspora of well-experienced, and frequently well-compensated executives and founders who’ve all gone through the glory and hell of building the same company and suddenly find themselves with nothing to do when it sells, shutters, or goes public.

A bit like real mafias, the guys from, say, Netscape or PayPal are deeply connected to one another, trust one another, and have likely seen things they don’t want to relive.

Unlike real mafias, members of tech mafias don’t generally speaking collude to do wildly illegal and immoral things.

And then there’s Uber. And yet another area in which that company could break the Valley mould.

There’s long been “lawbreaking” in Silicon Valley: Playing in the grey area of online gambling, illegal file sharing, disrupting hotel and taxi laws. But there’s a difference between disruptive lawbreaking and deliberate, sustained criminality. Just as there’s a difference between driving five miles over the speed limit and committing armed robbery.

As we learn more about the timeline of Anthony Levandowski’s alleged theft of Waymo trade secrets, a growing chorus of commentators are openly speculating just how far over the criminality line Uber might have crossed.

The implication based on that timeline -- and, to be absolutely clear, it’s only an implication as Google is not yet directly alleging this-- is that Levandowski not only stole technology from Google to use to start Otto, but that Uber and/or Travis Kalanick might have been aware of the plan from the start.

The theory hinges on a March 10 written declaration by Google’s Pierre-Yves Droz filed with the court, along with an injunction to prevent Uber using any of its self driving technology. Droz worked closely with Levandowski and claims Levandowski told him he wanted to start a new company that “replicate[d]” Waymo’s technology. Droz says Levandowski said six months earlier he’d had dinner with an Uber executive who said the company would be “interested in buying the team responsible for the LiDAR we were developing at Google.”

Levandowski was also seen at Uber’s headquarters in January 2016-- just days after Google alleging he was downloading files from the server.

Further, when Uber bought Otto after just six months of operations, Kalanick bragged inside the company and outside the company about secret rendezvous the two of them had been having even earlier. From a new Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story:

The two would go to the San Francisco Ferry Building after sunset, entering separately and each picking up takeout food. They’d begin walking west toward the Golden Gate Bridge, where they’d eventually join up and begin talking. Kalanick recalled that he and Levandowski went on five or so of these walks, each one lasting several hours.

And ReCode reported this week that Kalanick hired Levandowski as a “consultant” to Uber’s self driving efforts as early as February 2016. That’s right: The same month he forms Otto, which was presumably a competing company, and weeks after Google alleges he was downloading trade secrets. About the same time Kalanick is frustrated that his self-driving car company isn’t making rapid enough progress.

Now remember, Kalanick himself has said the future of Uber hinges on winning, and acknowledged this same year, that Uber was “lagging.”

I think we're catching up. Look at some of the folks and how long they've been working on it. Lots of respect for an area that they've pioneered, and we've got to do some catch-up.

If we are to believe Kalanick’s own words, the $70 billion question is how far he would go to save Uber and his own legacy?

Two things make it difficult to give Uber the benefit of the doubt, aside from the bizarre timeline of events. The first is that Uber has absolutely no credibility when it comes to honesty. It has been caught in repeated lies by courts, federal agencies and the press-- whether it’s about market share in China, whether “safety fees” go towards keeping you safe, over how much money drivers can actually make, and over whether or not it undertook “possibly criminal” activities to smear critics.

Even its Silicon Valley apologists are starting to dwindle.

The second thing is the descriptions of Levandowski by those who knew him at Google: A “sulky” man who liked to skirt the rules in order to get his way, a man who wanted to take more aggressive paths to get his technology on the road. Here’s how Kalanick described him to Bloomberg at the time of the deal:

Kalanick, now 40, was taken by the younger man’s hustle and sense of purpose, describing him as a “brother from another mother.”

With all we know about Kalanick these days, that could be seen as a hell of an indictment on Levandowski’s character, not a compliment. As the Guardian reported, recruiters are actually advising that some job candidates leave Uber off their resume, the culture of the company is considered so unapologetically toxic right now.

On the face of it, at least, a Kalanick / Levandowski partnership seems like a match made in heaven.

Again, though, all of this has to remain in the realms of entertaining speculation until discovery in Google’s lawsuit shows categorically whether Travis Kalanick is being miscast as a criminal mastermind here.  

Meantime, two questions remained for me after digesting all this information, reading through the timeline of events, and re-reading Kalanick’s own words about its existential need to catch up in this technology, and reports on how Levandowski disagreed with-- and even felt slighted by-- Google’s more deliberate strategy to build fully autonomous cars, not rush to commercialize its technology immediately.

The first: Who else on Uber’s famous “A Team” was involved in this deal? None of the press reports on the scandal to date shed any light on it. Throughout all of its scandals, Kalanick has steadfastly stood by his A Team, and they’ve in return stood by him. They are considered untouchable within the company, whether they threaten journalists or sexual harass workers, according to multiple press reports.

While Kalanick’s secret Ferry Building rendezvous suggest this was all him, I’ve spoken with several people close to the company who tell me it’s inconceivable that at least one other member of the A Team wouldn’t have been involved in a deal this big.

The members of the A Team are still a little fuzzy but every so often a media report is able to deliver a name. Here’s the New York Times for example:

One member of the A-Team was Emil Michael, senior vice president for business, who was caught up in a public scandal over comments he made in 2014 about digging into the private lives of journalists who opposed the company. Mr. Kalanick defended Mr. Michael, saying he believed Mr. Michael could learn from his mistakes.

Of all the members of the A Team who might be implicated in this latest scandal, surely Emil Michael is an easy one off the list. Having made international headlines for threatening to “go after” my family over my reporting on Uber, Michael was shuttled off to head Uber’s China expansion with results that might charitably be described as “mixed.”

The last thing any sane person in his position would do, having just survived one Uber scandal, would be to get himself tied up in another one.

But then again, this is Uber.

In the past week or so, several believable sources with knowledge of the company’s inner workings have suggested that Michael, as VP of business, would certainly have been involved in a deal of this importance.

Now, it’s important to note the caveats in that previous sentence: The sources didn’t say he was involved -- again, everyone is waiting for discovery -- but rather that, in the normal order of Uber’s business, Michael would have been involved. (I emailed Uber for comment earlier this week and they haven't responded.) 

Again, despite what a growing number of sources are telling me, it seems incredible to believe that a man like Emil Michael - formerly of the Pentagon and special advisor to the former head of the CIA -- would be so, well, stupid to get tangled up in yet another scandal.

Here’s what does seem very plausible: Whatever the truth behind the Otto deal (and the evidence presented by Google so far is utterly damning) it’s inconceivable that Travis Kalanick single-handedly instigated, negotiated and closed the secretive acquisition without help from any of his core team of bros. And when the names of those bros start to get confirmed publicly, their loyalty to Kalanick (and vice versa) is going to be tested like never before.    

I said I had two questions. Here’s the second:

If -- if! -- it’s true that Uber was knowingly involved in the theft of Google’s intellectual property, even if it didn’t think Google had the evidence or aggressiveness to sue, why on earth wouldn’t Uber have filed to go public last summer before its playbook started to unravel? Sure, living this as a public company would be brutal, but at least you would have already made it out. You would have-- at a minimum-- gotten paid for the last near-decade of, ahem, “hustle.”

Several “anonymous sources” quoted by Bloomberg Businessweek hint at the sick self-justification that Uber executives and Levandowski may have engaged in:

Some former colleagues seem to think that even if Levandowski did what Google alleges, he doesn’t deserve to be punished. “Whatever Google may say about him stealing lidar trade secrets, he was the lidar team at Google,” says someone who worked at the company’s driverless car program. “This is like the Swiss patent office suing Einstein for inventing the theory of relativity while he worked there.”

Wow. We’ve moved on from cult of the founder to...cult of the product manager? This single quote shows how far certain pockets of the Valley have veered from any notion of right and wrong.

Indeed, several reports have noted that Levandowski hasn’t appeared to be rattled in subsequent appearances after the lawsuit was filed. He has explained away downloading the files as preparing to do some work at home. . . yunno, a few weeks before starting his new competing company and becoming a paid consultant for Uber’s competing self driving car division.

Is it possible that the Uber A-Team has become so warped in their insular group-think, their arrogant ambition so unchecked, their sense of entitlement to win at any costs so great, that they actually believe this justification? That they don’t believe an employee should be “punished” for stealing trade secrets and selling them to a competitor for more than half a billion dollars… because of his innate genius?

That justification is remarkably out of step with the larger narrative in the press: That this is the thing that could finally destroy the company.

Uber’s legal response is anticipated later this month. They’ve already claimed Levandowski did nothing wrong and tried to paint this as Google desperately trying to slow down a competitor. (A strange defense given Kalanick himself has said Uber is the one lagging behind in this space…It is after all Uber whose future wholly relies on being first here, not Google’s.) Uber could offer to settle, licensing the patents from Google. Or it could do what Uber typically has done in every instance except its capitulation in China: Dig in and fight no matter how crazy that may seem.