Google’s former self-driving car boss Chris Urmson raises millions for startup while facing Tesla lawsuit

The feeding frenzy is on, and it’s not pretty.

Amid Silicon Valley’s rush to bring self-driving cars to what’s expected to be a hugely lucrative market, undercurrents of treachery are surfacing as the fight between tech titans becomes ever more vicious.

Ride-hailing giant Uber and Google’s pioneering Waymo robot-car firm are locked in a dramatic court battle over allegations that a former Googler, in Mission Impossible style, plundered Waymo of autonomous-vehicle secrets and brought them to Uber.

A federal judge on April 5 warned Uber that the evidence Waymo has brought against Anthony Levandowski is the strongest he’s seen in 42 years, Reuters reported. Levandowski, who heads Uber’s autonomous vehicle program, denies the allegations, but could be barred by court order from working on the program, the judge said.

And now, according to a new report, Google’s former self-driving car chief Chris Urmson has raised more than $3 million for his own “stealth” robot-vehicle startup — while facing an explosive lawsuit from Tesla.

Urmson’s secretive enterprise has lured engineers away from Uber, Google, Nvidia and Tesla, news website Axios reported April 5.

“Many of them self-identify on LinkedIn as working for ‘Stealthy McStartup,'” according to Axios.

But Tesla is accusing Urmson and its former director of the Autopilot unit of a different kind of stealthiness. In a lawsuit filed in January, the Palo Alto-based electric car maker made claims remarkably similar to those levied by Waymo against Uber.

The lawsuit makes reference to the robot-truck startup, Otto, that Levandowski sold to Uber for more than $680 million after leaving Google, and alleges that Urmson and his startup co-founder Sterling Anderson “decided to take a run at a similar fortune.”

Anderson, while working at Tesla, secretly recruited Autopilot engineers for his budding enterprise with Urmson, stole hundreds of gigabytes of Tesla’s confidential data, then “doctored” his company laptop “in an attempt to conceal his misdeeds,” the lawsuit claims.

None of Tesla’s allegations have been proven.

It’s no surprise to see lawsuits arising from a self-driving car business that has become exceptionally cutthroat. Major players in the sector generally expect to put significant numbers of the vehicles onto public roads by 2020, raising a ticking clock over the scramble for future market share. And “shared mobility” — the ride sharing systems that are a major focus for autonomous-vehicle firms — is predicted by Morgan Stanley to become a $2.6 trillion market by 2030.

 

Photo: A self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan from Google spin-off Waymo (courtesy of Waymo)

 

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