Google, Uber, and the Battle to Build an Autonomous Car

Anthony Levandowski stood at the center of the race between Google and Uber to build self-driving cars. He was there at the beginning of Google’s program in 2009. By the time it became Waymo in 2016, he’d left, founded a self-driving truck company called Otto, and sold that (in 2016) to Uber for $600 million. He was eventually indicted on dozens of federal charges, accused of stealing 14,000 files containing Google’s self-driving trade secrets. In August, Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

“I think there’s a certain…egotism to the tech industry,” says Alex Davies, transportation editor for Business Insider and formerly for WIRED, and the author of Driven, a new book on the subject of the self-driving rivalry between Google and Uber. “The way the tech industry works today, it puts enormous value on the person who says, ‘No, no, no, no, no. You’ve all been doing it wrong. And I have the better way.’ And it rewards that with adulation, and incredible amounts of money.”

This turns out to be a toxic recipe for success, especially in a category as complex as autonomous cars, where one person’s vision cannot possibly triumph over the myriad of technological, social, cultural, political, economic, and logistical challenges. In their internal battles for dominance, the teams ended up wasting a huge amount of time, money, and energy.

author alex davies

Alex Davies

Christie Hemm Klok

“It’s shocking, the stupid fights these guys had,” Davies says. “Arguments over who deserved more money, who should have power over the team. Screaming matches over button configurations in a car that wasn’t a product, where none of these people had product experience. They weren’t even designers. They were robotics PhDs.”

Davies details all of these pitfalls, as well as the incremental successes, in a breezy 250-page narrative loaded with primary source reporting. And what develops is a sense that many of the higher-ups in these companies—for all their skills, all their monomaniacal focus, and all their desire to “disrupt”—were blinded by the hubris and potential payouts endemic to the tech industry. As Davies points out in the book, over the course of the past ten years, “thousands of engineers have been hired, billions have been spent, and there is still no product.”

After writing the book, we wondered if Davies is more or less of a believer in the viability of the self-driving car. “In terms of whether the fully autonomous car will ever exist—the car that you own, that sits in your driveway, that doesn’t’ have a steering wheel or pedals, and you get in and tell it where to go and it takes you anywhere? I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible, but I think that’s decades away—like, 40, 50 years away.” He continues: “Someone who is in this industry and had kind of soured on the potential of it, told me, ‘At the end of the day, the whole self-driving car initiative has been one hell of a jobs program.’”

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