Google Co-Founder Enlisted Engineer For His Flying Car -- WSJ

By Jack Nicas Features Dow Jones Newswires

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 4, 2017).

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Google co-founder Larry Page's flying-car startup enlisted star Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to work on the project, according to people familiar with the matter, months before Mr. Levandowski left the tech giant last year, allegedly with trade secrets, for rival Uber Technologies Inc.

Mr. Levandowski's involvement with the project, called Kitty Hawk Corp., is another sign of his unusual tenure at Google. Over nine years at Google, Mr. Levandowski started outside firms related to his work on self-driving cars and other projects at Google, and eventually sold one to his employer for about $20 million, The Wall Street Journal reported in May.

His departure from Google sparked the high-stakes legal fight between Uber and Google parent Alphabet Inc. Alphabet is suing Uber for allegedly conspiring with Mr. Levandowski to steal its driverless-car trade secrets. Alphabet also has filed two arbitration claims against Mr. Levandowski.

Kitty Hawk, launched by Alphabet Chief Executive Mr. Page, is a private, outside firm building a one-person electric aircraft that resembles a large consumer drone. While employed at Google, Mr. Levandowski worked on Mr. Page's project, though he wasn't a formal Kitty Hawk employee, according to the people.

At one point, Mr. Levandowski helped test the aircraft at a ranch owned by Mr. Page while Mr. Page was present, one person said. Mr. Page confirmed Mr. Levandowski's involvement in Kitty Hawk in a nearly five-hour deposition with Uber attorneys last month, one person said.

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Alphabet, Uber and Kitty Hawk didn't respond to requests for comment. Through his attorneys, Mr. Levandowski didn't respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Levandowski's work on Kitty Hawk reflects how highly he was regarded by Alphabet's top executives -- and how his side dealings weren't entirely out of place at Alphabet, where even the CEO launched outside businesses that could overlap with Alphabet's work.

Alphabet's research lab has investigated a variety of aviation projects, including drones and airships. Independently of that, Mr. Page has two flying-car startups, and Google's other co-founder, Sergey Brin, is privately funding an airship.

Still, Mr. Page said he discouraged Mr. Levandowski, a top manager on Google's self-driving car project, from starting competing firms while at Google, according to a transcript of his deposition released Wednesday.

When Mr. Levandowski told Mr. Page he was considering starting a firm to develop self-driving trucks, Mr. Page said, "I told him very, very clearly that I thought that was highly competitive and not a good idea," according to the transcript. "I'm like, 'No, that's not fine. Like, that's the same thing as what you're doing here.' I mean, you can do that, but we are not going to be happy.'"

Mr. Page added, "I now believe he was trying to get me to say that it would not be competitive if he did trucking, because he was already doing it."

In January 2016, Mr. Levandowski registered a driverless-truck firm, Ottomotto LLC, and quit Google days later. Alphabet accuses him of taking 14,000 confidential files with him, part of an alleged plan with Uber to steal its trade secrets.

Last August, Uber bought Ottomotto for $680 million in stock and hired Mr. Levandowski to head its self-driving project. Uber has said it had no involvement in any alleged theft and that it has developed its self-driving cars using its own technology. Alphabet sued Uber in February, and a jury trial is set for October. Mr. Levandowski, who is no longer at Uber, has declined to comment throughout the case, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights.

In the deposition, Uber attorneys asked about a Google policy that allows employees to spend 20% of their time working on internal projects of their choosing. "Do you think that (Mr. Levandowski) worked on projects, such as yours?" an Uber attorney asked Mr. Page, apparently referring to Kitty Hawk.

"Well, that's not the point of the 20 percent. The 20 percent -- it says to benefit Google. So, I mean, that's just a different thing," Mr. Page responded, according to the transcript.

Kitty Hawk was discussed several times during Mr. Page's deposition, including Mr. Levandowski's involvement in it, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Page said Mr. Levandowski worked on a project that conducted testing at a ranch Mr. Page owned.

Amid redactions in the transcript that hide the next several minutes of conversation, Mr. Page appears to refer to the chief executive of Kitty Hawk when he says, "He was the CEO of Udacity." Mr. Page founded Kitty Hawk in July 2015 with Sebastian Thrun, the current CEO of Udacity, an online university, who helped launch Google's driverless-car team with Mr. Levandowski when he was a Google executive.

At another point, an Uber attorney suggested that when Mr. Levandowski left Google, he told a company human-resources employee that he planned to start a driverless-truck company or join Kitty Hawk.

"I'm not aware of that," Mr. Page said.

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 04, 2017 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)