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Why Google's bosses became 'unpumped' about Uber

Uber and Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet, used to be like brothers. Google invested in Uber. The internet giant's top lawyer even served on Uber's board of directors.

[SAN FRANCISCO] Uber and Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet, used to be like brothers. Google invested in Uber. The internet giant's top lawyer even served on Uber's board of directors.

But that "big brother, little brother" relationship deteriorated into paranoia as both companies pursued the creation of autonomous vehicles, Travis Kalanick, Uber's former chief executive, said Wednesday.

In the second full day of testimony in a federal trial that could last a month, Mr Kalanick said the ride-hailing service's acquisition of Otto, a startup founded by a former Google engineer, had been spurred in part by concern that the search giant would create a rival, robot-powered service.

Waymo, which filed the lawsuit that is being heard, contends that Uber's purchase of Otto in August 2016 was part of a plot to collude with former Google engineers to steal the company's trade secrets.

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The dissolution of Uber's relationship with Google demonstrates the finicky nature of the ties that bind - or break - tech conglomerates and promising startups.

It is something Google understands well. Years ago, Google was tightly aligned with Apple. But the relationship soured as Google started developing smartphone software. Steve Jobs, who was Apple's chief executive, rightly believed that Google's Android would become a competitive threat to the iPhone.

When Google initially invested in Uber in 2013, Larry Page, Google's chief executive at the time, and David Drummond, Alphabet's top lawyer, were mentors, Mr Kalanick said. Alphabet remains an investor in Uber.

The two companies, he said, had a "little brother, big brother" dynamic because Uber was "trying to get more of their time than they were willing to give". After Mr Page repeatedly spurned meetings to discuss combining Uber's ride-hailing service with Google's work on self-driving vehicles in some sort of partnership, Mr Kalanick said, his company started to develop its own autonomous car technology.

Uber hired a team of robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University, deepening the division between the two companies.

"Generally, Google was super not happy, unpumped about us doing this," said Kalanick, who stepped down as Uber's chief executive in June. He recalled that Mr Page had been "angsty" and asked him: "Why are you doing my thing?"

But Mr Kalanick said the engineers from Carnegie Mellon were not enough to catch up to Google's self-driving car project, which would become Waymo. So Uber started talking to Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, who was still working at Google, about helping Uber develop its laser sensor technology - an essential component for self-driving cars.

As Mr Kalanick and Mr Levandowski discussed ways to work together, they exchanged hundreds of text messages. The messages were presented in court on Wednesday and were mostly a variation on how important it was to win the race for self-driving cars.

Mr Levandowski told Mr Kalanick that "second place is first" loser. Mr Kalanick said this wasn't the first time he had heard this; it was something his high school football coach had said.

Mr Kalanick said he did not recall, however, what he had meant by some of the text messages he sent to Mr Levandowski, including one that read, "Burn the village".

In another exchange, Mr Levandowski sent Mr Kalanick a link to a scene from the movie "Wall Street" in which Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, argues "greed, for the lack of a better word, is good".

When asked whether he had watched the scene, Mr Kalanick said he thought so. His emoji response was a hint. "I mean there is a winky-face there," he said.

Once Uber and Otto struck a basic agreement for an acquisition in April 2016, months before the deal was announced, Mr Kalanick told Uber executives in a meeting that "golden time is over - it's now wartime".

At another meeting, he discussed how it was necessary for Uber to find and use "cheat codes".

Mr Kalanick explained that this phrase was not as nefarious as it sounded. Cheat codes "are elegant solutions to problems that haven't been thought of," he said. Tesla, for example, has customers pay tens of thousands for cars but loads those vehicles with sensors that provide data to support its self-driving car efforts.

Mr Kalanick said he had another testy conversation with Mr Page in October 2016, after Uber announced its acquisition of Otto. Interestingly, Mr Page was worried that Uber was developing its own flying car technology.

Mr Page has personally invested in flying car technology, although it is not clear whether Alphabet is working on it.

Mr Kalanick insisted that Uber was not working on flying cars, but he said Mr Page was mad that Uber was hiring Google employees and taking its intellectual property. To which, Mr Kalanick said, he responded, "Your people are not your IP." IP is an abbreviation for intellectual property.

As Uber's lawyers questioned him, Mr Kalanick recalled how he had so much fun as the company's chief executive. He liked "being in the trenches" with small teams. But when asked about the Otto acquisition and the hiring of Levandowski, Mr Kalanick was understated.

"It's not as great as we had thought at the beginning," he said.


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