How laser is the sauce? Pando goes to the Uber/Waymo trial, pt 2
Just before noon on Tuesday, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stood before the tall wooden double doors of a federal courtroom in San Francisco.
As he blithely chatted with a pair of familiar national journalists, his personal council, former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, stepped in ex post facto to assert that everything he had said was off the record. Oh of course, the journalists said together at once.
Kalanick said he felt like an athlete about to run through the tunnel to the field, and just then the door swung open and he was summoned inside. Taking a beat to compose himself, he stepped through the door.
It wasn’t jock jams and a gauntlet of cheering fans that awaited him, but rather a hushed, keyboard-mashing crowd of corporate trial operatives and fatigued reporters who’d arrived before dawn to secure a seat and had been live-tweeting for their suppers since. For the next hour and during a further two hours of testimony the following morning, Kalanick seemed at home in the center of this attention, and managed to lighten the earthy prevailing schadenfreude with bubbly accents of cognitive dissonance.
Charles Verhoven: Did you tell the group that what you wanted was a pound of flesh?
Travis Kalanick: I don’t know specifically. It’s a term I use from time to time.
Charles Verhoven: So during this jam session you discussed how laser is the sauce?
Travis Kalanick: Yes.
He was directed by Google’s lawyer Charles Vanderhoven through a trail of emails and things he’d said in the past, bro-rrific things that on the page provoke winces from his allies and shudders from his foes. Vainglorious statements of unmixed avarice peppered with adolescent broisms like “jam seshes” and “the sauce.” He cheerfully stood by it all, maintained a balanced demeanor, advisably forgot important details, and overall behaved like a sociopath who’d spent 6 months on corporate Elba being coached in how to charm a jury. Or who knows, maybe his detached and affable new attitude is the benefit of having joined Anthony Levandowski’s new cult.
Charles Verhoven: What do you mean by jam session?
Travis Kalanick: It's kind of a reference to if you have a jazz ensemble they have ideas at the beginning its ad hoc but it comes together to make beautiful music.
Next Kalanick was guided through the Uber counter-narrative by attorney Karen Dunn. In this alternative universe, Kalanick deeply wanted to partner with Google and thought he and Google CEO Larry Page had an understanding. But when Google got declared it was getting in to ridesharing, Uber countered by getting into autonomous vehicles, which made Page “unpumped” to the point of maliciously filing the current lawsuit.
Karen Dunn: Did you ever have a meeting with Mr. Page after that?
Kalanick: Yes, a few months later. That Spring.
Dunn: Was that after you acquired the [Carnegie Mellon autonomous vehicle] team?
Kalanick: Yes, so we didn’t get any traction with Google, so we got involved on our own.
Dunn: What do you remember of that meeting?
Kalanick: We were there to continue to talk about partnership. Larry was fairly upset with us about us acquiring the CMU team and starting autonomy efforts for ourselves.
Dunn: Do you remember what he said
Kalanick: He was angsty and said “Why are you doing my thing?”
Despite the drama that arises when this many reporters in the same room are facing a deadline, Kalanick’s testimony is fairly tangential to the case, which rests on whether what Anthony Levandowski took from Google amounted to trade secrets, whether Uber received those secrets, and whether they found their way into Uber’s self-driving car plans. Whether the hundreds of text messages between Kalanick and Levandowski demonstrate nefarious collusion (as Google suggests without producing a smoking gun) or whether it was just a case of two “brother[s] from another mother” (to use Kalanick’s phrase) getting to know each other as they launched a campaign to seize the future (as Uber maintains) doesn’t matter if Google doesn’t have the goods on the transfer of its trade secrets.
Kalanick: In late 2013 we got an investment from Google and Larry Page picked me up in a self driving car. I was like that is pretty cool. I thought: Google is doing this self-driving car thing, Uber is doing this rideshare thing, maybe we can put them together.
Karen Dunn: What was the relationship?
Kalanick: It was kind of like little brother big brother. It’s kinda hard for me to grok right now, at that time we were maybe a couple hundred people. I looked at David Drummond and Larry Page kind of as mentors.
On that score, perhaps the most damning testimony for Uber today came from Eric Friedberg, an executive from the firm it hired to do due diligence on the acquisition of Anthony Levandowski’s company Otto. Friedberg testified that while his firm was in the process of discovering that Levandowski had thousands of Google files ferreted away on external devices at home, and that he had lied to them about those files, Uber went ahead and did the acquisition anyway, the incomplete diligence notwithstanding.
Still, it’s always amusing to watch billionaires slug it out to win the favor of ten ordinary shmoes in a jury box. Since any part of the case that directly discusses the trade secrets is closed to the press and public, we’ll have to make do until a verdict comes in.
Dunn: Following the Otto acquisition did you personally have any conversations with any Google executives?
Kalanick: Larry Page
Kalanick: A phonecall in October, 2016.
Dunn: So that was after the Otto acquisition, but before this lawsuit was filed?How did hat come about?
Kalanick: We had heard Larry was upset … Google had been working on flying cars for some time, and he had heard that we were doing that too, again doing his thing. If google does release those I will make sure our 50 million customers can push a button and get a flying car, but I wanted to reassure him that we were not doing that.
Due in court tomorrow: Benchmark Capital partner and lapsed Kalanick apologist Bill Gurley!
Verhoven: Here it says “tone: The golden time is over it's war time.” You said that at this meeting, didn’t you?
Kalanick: It sounds like something I would say.