Tesla sues ex-Autopilot director and former head of Google’s self-driving unit

More strife has hit Tesla’s Autopilot world.

The Palo Alto electric vehicle maker sued its former director of Autopilot programs, claiming he took company secrets and recruited Tesla engineers to a new startup venture.

Tesla claims Sterling Anderson, who served as director of the division, and Chris Urmson, the former chief of Google’s self-driving team, formed a startup to compete with Tesla in the hot market for autonomous driving technology.

“In their zeal to play catch-up, traditional automakers have created a get-rich-quick environment,” the complaint said. “Small teams of programmers with little more than demoware have been bought for as much as a billion dollars.”

The complaint alleges Anderson and Urmson secretly discussed forming a new venture — later named Aurora Innovation — to offer autonomous driving technology and compete with Tesla. The company also charges that Anderson took some of its most competitive trade secrets and tried to cover his tracks.

Aurora disputed the claims.

“Tesla’s meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition,” the startup said. “This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations. Aurora looks forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Anderson worked at Tesla from December 2014 to December 2016. He led Autopilot programs for 14 months. Anderson earned his B.A. from BYU and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT.

Tesla added former Apple executive Chris Lattner this month to lead the Autopilot software project.

Urmson served as the chief technology officer for Google’s self-driving car project from 2009 to August 2016, according to LinkedIn. He has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon.  He’s seen as a guru of driverless vehicles.

The suit, filed in Santa Clara Superior Court, seeks to prevent the startup from recruiting other Tesla employees and contractors, and unspecified damages.

Photo: An exterior view of Tesla’s Model S beta prototype. (Dai Sugano/Mercury News)


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  • stanwhittier

    Commercial aviation has worked towards a fully automated flight for several decades. Commercial aviation enjoys many benefits which are not present (yet) in automotive traffic. Commercial aviation has, for example, a well trained and highly attentive “driver”. Commercial aviation enjoys many navigational aids not found in our highways. Commercial aviation has well understood and entrenched “rules of the road” designed to minimize conflicts between vehicles. Commercial aviation enjoys the benefit of third party monitoring of flight progress. Despite these myriad advantages, despite the huge economic incentive to automate flight we are a very long way from someone pushing a “go” button and arriving at their destination. When you are able to deliver a fully automated flight in THIS sector, I might start to think that a fully autonomous automobile is somewhere in our not too distant future. Until then – these are little more than dangerous and wistful headlines aimed at stoking the PPS for these companies.

    • Elijah Kerry

      NHTSA and facts disagree with your opinion, but maybe that doesn’t matter now that we live in a world of alternative facts. Sigh…. https://electrek.co/2017/01/19/tesla-crash-rate-autopilot-nhtsa/

      • stanwhittier

        @Elijah. Was hoping you were going to present some contrary “facts” re the topic at hand. Which was, let me remind you , FULLY autonomous driving. So sorry to see you had absolutely nothing to offer on that specific topic.