Waymo v. Uber trial: 'Cheat codes' in Kalanick's playbook

The second day on the stand for Uber ex-CEO Travis Kalanick gets off to a riveting start as Waymo lawyers grill him about what he knew and when he knew it.

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Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Rochelle Garner Features Editor / News
Rochelle Garner is features editor for CNET News. A native of the mythical land known as Silicon Valley, she has written about the technology industry for more than 20 years. She has worked in an odd mix of publications -- from National Geographic magazine to MacWEEK and Bloomberg News.
Dara Kerr
Rochelle Garner
5 min read

It was early morning, but courtroom No. 12 in San Francisco's federal court was already filled. The judge sat at the bench, nearly two dozen lawyers in dark suits flanked the counsel tables and rows of reporters filled the gallery. All were waiting for the witness to take the stand.

Outside in the hallway, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick paced back and forth taking swigs from a plastic water bottle. He was surrounded by a small entourage of people who appeared to be lawyers and handlers, along with his dad. He walked over to one of his colleagues and said he'll "be good in two hours."

In two hours, he would finish the second day of grueling testimony in one the most-watched Silicon Valley trials in history. 


Travis Kalanick leaves the San Francisco federal courthouse Tuesday with his father, Donald Kalanick. 

James Martin/CNET

The case was brought by Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google parent company Alphabet, in February last year. It revolves around allegations that Uber stole trade secrets to use for its own self-driving program.

Uber calls these claims "baseless." But if the jury decides differently, the ride-hailing company may be forced to pay nearly $2 billion in damages and halt autonomous vehicle project.

'Greed is good'

During Kalanick's testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, Waymo's lawyers tried to paint him as a greedy egotist who would stop at nothing to make sure his company came out on top. They showed text messages, email exchanges and other internal documents full of Silicon Valley bro speak and cocky zeal.

Minutes from an April 28, 2016, meeting read: "Top priorities from [Travis Kalanick] ... cheat codes, find them, use them."

Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven: "You said this in a meeting, didn't you?"

Kalanick: "It's quite possible."

Verhoeven: "The golden time is over. It's war time"?

Kalanick: "It sounds like something I would say."

Watch this: Uber ex-CEO Travis Kalanick steals the Waymo v. Uber show

Waymo alleges Uber got a hold of its trade secrets from its former engineer, Anthony Levandowski. Waymo claims Levandowski pilfered about 14,000 files from it before quitting in January 2016 to form his own self-driving truck startup, Otto.  Uber acquired Otto in August 2016 and placed Levandowski as head of its autonomous vehicle program. Uber says it's never seen these files. 

Levandowski has a long history of working on self-driving cars. He joined Google as a software engineer in 2007 and helped pioneer the tech giant's self-driving-car project. Much of his work dealt with lidar, formally known as "light detection and ranging." Lidar is one of the main technologies used in both Waymo and Uber's self-driving cars and lets vehicles "see" their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles.

Levandowski is expected to take the stand during the trial, but so far he's pleaded the Fifth Amendment. So it's unclear if he'll answer questions about Waymo's allegations. 

Lawyers on Wednesday aimed to show Levandowski and Kalanick were in cahoots. They exhibited a text Levandowski sent Kalanick in March 2016 that said, "here's the speech you need to give ;)." The text had a link to a YouTube video from the 1987 movie "Wall Street," in which the film's protagonist, Gordon Gekko, says, "greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

Later Verhoeven asked Kalanick, "Isn't it true that you said Mr. Levandowski is a 'brother from another mother?'"

Kalanick replied, "That's something I said a couple times, yes."

Verhoeven also brought up another text exchange between Levandowski and Kalanick, in which both agreed that "second place is first loser" in the race to win the autonomous vehicle market. 

Under Kalanick's eight years of leadership, Uber became known for an overly aggressive culture rife with gender bias, unprofessional business practices and even a secret tool, called Greyball, that it used to identify authorities trying to crack down on the ride-hailing service. After months of scandals, Uber's top investors forced Kalanick to resign in June.

Big brother, little brother

Finally, after more than an hour Wednesday under Waymo's glare, Kalanick got a chance to explain why he wanted to compete against Google in the self-driving car race, under questioning from Uber's lawyer Karen Dunn. 

Uber's former CEO said he originally wanted to partner with Google since it was doing the "self-driving thing" and Uber was doing the "ride-sharing thing."

"I looked at David Drummond and Larry Page kind of as mentors," Kalanick said, referring to Alphabet's chief legal officer and CEO. "It was kind of like little brother with the big brother."

But in 2015, Kalanick began to hear rumors that Google wanted to start its own ride-hailing service. He said he tried to meet with Page, but Page was "upset" at Uber for acquiring 40 researchers from Carnegie Mellon's robotics lab for its self-driving car program.  

"Generally, Google was super not happy, unpumped, about us doing this," Kalanick said. "When you go and hire a large group of people… those competitive juices get flowing."

From there, Kalanick said Uber started discussions with Levandowski and then eventually brought him onto the team.

"We hired Anthony because we felt he was an incredible visionary, an incredibly good technologist. Also he was very charming," Kalanick said. He added that before this lawsuit, he had never heard of the 14,000 files Levandowski allegedly brought to Uber.

Stroz report

Before acquiring Otto, Uber commissioned forensics firm Stroz Friedberg to conduct due diligence on Levandowski and his startup. 

The firm reported Levandowski possessed Google information, encouraged Google employees to join Otto, met with Uber executives while still working at Google, and had destroyed Google files -- including source code, files and software pertaining to self-driving cars -- he had stored on five disks. 

Kalanick testified Wednesday he never read the Uber-commissioned report. Despite that, he said Uber agreed to indemnify Levandowski if Google ever sued. 

The final witness to take the stand was Eric Friedberg, cofounder of the Stroz Friedberg. Much of his testimony detailed what's in the report, including that Levandowski found a hard drive in the back of his closet containing Google files after he quit the company.

Verhoeven pointed out to the jury that Levandowski said the last time he used the device was around late December 2015, although Stroz found evidence that he connected it to his laptop in March 2016.

"So, he's not telling the truth, is he?" Verhoeven said.

"I'm not the ultimate decider of truth and credibility," Friedberg replied. "But it would give us pause."

Originally published Feb. 7 at 9:41 a.m. PT.
Update at 10:40 a.m. PT: Includes additional testimony.

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