Uber's Self-Driving Car Chief Steps Aside During Spat With Alphabet -- Update

By Greg Bensinger Features Dow Jones Newswires

Anthony Levandowski, the man at the center of Uber Technologies Inc.'s legal spat with rival Alphabet Inc. over allegedly stolen self-driving car technology, is stepping aside as chief of the high profile Uber project.

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Mr. Levandowski said in a note to staff Thursday that while the lawsuit is under way he is relinquishing his role as head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, which is overseeing development of autonomous vehicles. He will be replaced by Eric Meyhofer, a lead engineer in the division in Uber's Pittsburgh office.

As part of the shift, Mr. Levandowski said, he would no longer report to Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick. Instead, he will report to Mr. Meyhofer. Mr. Levandowski asked staff to leave him out of discussions about development of sensors for self-driving vehicles known as lidar, which are a focus of the lawsuit.

"Going forward, please make sure not to include me in meetings or email threads related to LiDAR, or ask me for advice on the topic," said Mr. Levandowski in the email, seen by The Wall Street Journal. "With this move, I hope to keep the team focused on achieving the vision that brought us all here."

Uber said it didn't have a statement beyond the email and said Mr. Levandowski wasn't available for further comment.

Business Insider reported on Mr. Levandowski's email earlier.

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Alphabet sued Uber in February, alleging the ride-hailing firm is using stolen technology in its development of autonomous vehicles. Last year, Uber acquired Otto, a self-driving big-rig firm that Mr. Levandowski founded after he stopped working for Google's self-driving car program. Alphabet claims it uses technology he took with him without permission when he left Alphabet's Google.

Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous vehicles business, has requested the federal judge halt Uber's development of lidar and block Mr. Levandowski from continuing to work on the project.

The development of self-driving vehicles is crucial for Uber, as payments to drivers are one of its chief expenses. As a result, the case threatens Mr. Kalanick plans to one day have a fleet of autonomous cars picking up and dropping off passengers around the clock, a shift he has said is "existential."

Alphabet has accused Mr. Levandowski of conspiring to form Otto using 14,000 files he took from Google in early 2016 without the company's permission. And the Mountain View, Calif., company alleges Uber was complicit in the theft when it acquired Otto last year for about $680 million.

Alphabet alleges that Mr. Levandowski began preliminary discussions with Uber as early as 2015 about forming an autonomous vehicle company that Uber could buy.

Uber has denied wrongdoing and is contesting the lawsuit.

Mr. Levandowski, 37 years old, has sought in court proceedings to invoke his right against self-incrimination by keeping private certain documents. Nonetheless, a federal judge this week said those rights do not preclude the documents' disclosure and that Uber would be compelled to turn over the evidence.

Write to Greg Bensinger at greg.bensinger@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 27, 2017 19:04 ET (23:04 GMT)