Known for his fiery, overly aggressive approach to business, ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick seemed laid back and calm, if maybe a bit nervous while sipping on a water bottle, when he testified in a San Francisco court on Tuesday.
Kalanick appeared in U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s courtroom as part of the ongoing legal battle between two of the largest autonomous vehicle developers: Waymo and Uber.
After Kalanick resigned in June, he’s been elusive, releasing only a few statements. But Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. District Court he spoke — or at least responded to questioning — for nearly an hour. He was by no means effusive, but while wearing a suit and tie, he promptly answered all questions and didn’t come across as defensive or evasive.
The jury trial started Monday after Waymo, a driverless car company spun out of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, sued Uber a year ago over claims it was stealing trade secrets imperative to developing self-driving cars. Waymo has been painting Kalanick as the evil mastermind behind the stolen technology after he poached former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski.
Uber acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck start-up Otto for $680 million in August 2016, shortly after Levandowski left Google. Waymo claims Levandowski brought to Uber 14,000 secret files, including information on the LIDAR (that stands for Light Detection and Ranging) laser and sensor technology to map out a vehicle’s surroundings.
Waymo is, in part, trying to prove that its trade secrets that gave the company a leg up in the autonomous vehicle industry were stolen and used to Uber’s advantage. And also that they were indeed trade secrets and something an engineer couldn’t figure out independently. That’s why Waymo’s legal team called up Kalanick to the witness stand.
Kalanick often responded with short, curt answers, but when asked about the competitive relationship between Google and Uber’s self-driving programs, he acknowledged Google’s advantage. “I don’t know when Google started working on [autonomous vehicles], but certainly earlier than us.”
He confirmed that he thought Google was in the lead with autonomous vehicles and that he wanted Levandowski and his laser skills and expertise to work for Uber’s program.
“[Levandowski] was very adamant about starting a company and we were adamant about hiring him,” Kalanick said about the creation and acquisition of Otto, Levandowski’s self-driving truck project.
Waymo dug deep into emails and meeting notes, trying to set the scene of a demanding Kalanick forcing the self-driving car team to cheat, lie, and steal to beat the competition.
Pulled from former head of Uber’s self-driving car program John Bares meeting notes was a list of wants from Kalanick, which included a “pound of flesh.” When asked if Kalanick had used that term in a meeting, he responded, “I don’t know specifically. It’s a term I use from time to time.”
Other notes and emails reference a “jam session” with Levandowski, whom Kalanick apparently once said in a meeting that he’s a “big fan.” Kalanick exuberantly defended the jam session term, explaining how like a jazz ensemble makes beautiful music, meeting with interesting people leads to innovation.
Other Kalanick expressions were brought up, like “Laser is the sauce.” He was referring to what he considers the powerful laser technology LIDAR, which other internal notes show Uber was hungry to use and access. Another note about what Uber wanted from Levandowski included the laundry list of “lasers, data, advice.”
Kalanick seemed unfazed throughout the session to have his words thrown back at him.
The courtroom drama giving a behind the scenes look at the competitive nature of Uber, Kalanick, and the driverless car industry continues Wednesday with Kalanick back in the hot seat.