Uber faces attacks on multiple fronts.

For starters, Susan Fowler, a reliability engineer, unleashed a firestorm with a 3,000-word document describing multiple instances of sexual harassment over the course of a full year, starting with a first-day proposition from her manager.

Next, Uber’s credibility is at stake after one of its self-driving vehicles ran a red light. Uber claimed a human was at the wheel, but it turns out Uber lied.

Finally, Uber also has to deal with a Google lawsuit regarding stolen technology.


The Financial Times reports Susan Fowler, the Techie Taking on Uber.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, started the week by launching an investigation into claims of sexism at the ride-hailing start-up. Within days, a wave of consumers had quit the app to protest at its treatment of female developers.

The revelation that shook Mr Kalanick, Uber and the technology industry came from Susan Fowler, a 25-year old site reliability engineer, who had worked at the company for a little over a year. She wrote an entry on her personal blog called simply: “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber”.

Ms Fowler detailed in almost 3,000 words, each alleged incident of sexism by her superiors. It was shared on Twitter just under 22,000 times. According to her account, Uber’s human resources department refused to discipline her manager when he propositioned her on her first day, despite his having harassed other women. She describes being told something “personal” might be holding her back from moving teams despite a perfect performance review, as well as subtle discrimination, such as female engineers being denied leather jackets given to men, because there were too few women for a bulk discount. “I feel a lot of sadness, but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year,” she summed up.

Uber Lies About Running Red Light

The New York Times reports A Lawsuit Against Uber Highlights the Rush to Conquer Driverless Cars

Late last year, Uber, in defiance of California state regulators, went ahead with a self-driving car experiment on the streets of San Francisco under the leadership of Anthony Levandowski, a new company executive.

The experiment quickly ran into problems. In one case, an autonomous Volvo zoomed through a red light on a busy street in front of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Uber, a ride-hailing service, said the incident was because of human error. “This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” Chelsea Kohler, a company spokeswoman, said in December.

But even though Uber said it had suspended an employee riding in the Volvo, the self-driving car was, in fact, driving itself when it barreled through the red light, according to two Uber employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the company, and internal Uber documents viewed by The New York Times. All told, the mapping programs used by Uber’s cars failed to recognize six traffic lights in the San Francisco area. “In this case, the car went through a red light,” the documents said.

Fatal Setback for Uber Coming UPO?

The Guardian reports Google lawsuit could be a fatal setback for Uber’s self-driving dreams.

Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber’s self-driving car program, is at the center of a blistering lawsuit against Uber that was filed Thursday by his former employer, Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo. He is accused of brazenly stealing critical intellectual property and trade secrets and using them to start his own company, Otto. Uber’s $680m acquisition of Otto in August 2016 gave it access to Waymo’s secrets, the suit claims, which the ride-sharing company is now using to bypass Google’s seven years and many millions of dollars worth of research and development.

Waymo claims to have significant evidence of the theft, including logs of downloads by Levandowski and other Otto recruits, an errant email from a vendor showing that Otto’s LiDAR system – the system that allows an autonomous vehicle to navigate – bears a “striking resemblance” to Waymo’s own design, and documents Otto filed with the Nevada state government. The suit also alleges that Levandowski met with “high-level executives” at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters while he still worked at Google – and one day before he formed the company that would become Otto.

On Friday, Uber issued a blanket denial, saying in a statement: “We have reviewed Waymo’s claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court.” Levandowski did not respond to a request for comment.

But if Google is able to prove its case, the cost to Uber could be significant. In addition to monetary damages, Waymo is seeking an injunction against Uber to bar it from using the allegedly stolen tech.

Google could win a “head-start” injunction against Uber, preventing the company from working on the disputed LiDAR technology for as long as it took Google to develop, according to Robert Merges, an intellectual property expert at the University of California, Berkeley law school. For Uber to “sit on the sideline” for three to five years while its competitors race to market would be a “very significant setback”, Merges said.

At the center of the current dispute is LiDAR, the system of lasers that allow an autonomous vehicle to build a 3D map of its environment and “see” where it is going. Waymo claims that its proprietary LiDAR is its secret sauce, but Merges cautioned that “it might not be as innovative as they make it seem”. If Waymo’s design is derived from public information, such as scientific papers, then Otto and Uber could defend the alleged similarities in design.

Still, experts questioned the speed at which Otto claimed to have developed its own system. “It takes years to break into commercialisation if you start with a blank sheet of paper,” said Richard Wallace of the Center for Automotive Research. “Recreating is a lot slower than ‘I already have it.’”

Waymo has also alleged that the theft went beyond the LiDAR system’s specifications to include other trade secrets involving the company’s supply chain and vendors. And despite Levandowski’s claim that the company was started “traditionally in a house in Palo Alto”, the company’s roots clearly point to Mountain View.

The four co-founders – Levandowski, Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay, and Don Burnette – all left jobs at Google to start Otto. An additional 28 Otto employees are Google alumni, according to a review of LinkedIn profiles, and 18 of them left jobs with Google’s self-driving car unit and joined Otto a month or two later. Many moved into positions with the same or comparable job titles, including Sameer Kshirsagar, Google’s former manager for global supply management for self-driving cars who became Uber and Otto’s director of supply chain in July 2016, the same month he left Google.

In the lawsuit, Waymo alleges that a “supply chain manager” downloaded “confidential supply chain information and other confidential manufacturing information” one month before resigning in July 2016 and going to work for Otto. Kshirsagar did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, just hours before the Waymo suit dropped, Uber was also hit with a public rebuke from two of its earliest investors, Mitch and Freada Kapor. The pair lambasted “a culture plagued by disrespect, exclusionary cliques, lack of diversity, and tolerance for bullying and harassment of every form” and pointed out Uber’s habit of “responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologizing and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual”.

That’s quite a set of charges, plus a rebuke, all of which seem credible.

Meanwhile, none of this will slow down the march towards driverless vehicles.

Uber or not, the driverless trend is unstoppable.

Related Articles

  1. January 18, 2017: Evaluating the Timeframe for Self-Driving Widespread Adoption
  2. January 8, 2017: Google’s Self-Driving Minivans Arrive This Month
  3. December 3, 2016: Apple Officially Enters Self-Driving Car Race, Sends Letter to DOT
  4. November 28, 2016: “Otto” Self-Driving Truck Test on Ohio Roads this Week
  5. September 20, 2016: DOT Embraces Self Driving Vehicles: “Rise of New Technology is Inevitable, Unknowns Today Become Knowns Tomorrow”
  6. August 6, 2016: Singapore Unveils “Real” Self-Driving Taxis (No Steering Wheel, No Pedal) Dateline 2019

Mike “Mish” Shedlock