It looks like Chris Urmson has spent the six months since he left Google's Self Driving Car Project trying to build a get-rich-quick self-driving unicorn, along with Sterling Anderson, formerly with Tesla Motors. At least that is one of several scandalous accusations in a Tesla lawsuit aimed at the pair, and their secretive startup Aurora Innovation, LLC.
The lawsuit alleges that Anderson was recruiting Tesla employees while he was still an employee and that he stole Tesla data, a clear breach of contract. It also claims Urmson knew about Anderson's contract and that he intentionally encouraged Anderson to breach it for the benefit of Aurora.
Urmson's name is well known in the self-driving car industry, with an incredibly impressive résumé. He got his computer engineering degree at the University of Manitoba in 1998, and then his PhD in robotics from the illustrious Carnegie Mellon in 2004, where he wrote his impressive doctoral dissertation, "Navigation Regimes for Off-Road Autonomy."
Urmson's teams placed both 2nd and 3rd in the 2005 Grand Challenge, self-driving across a desert, and then won the 2007 Urban Challenge, which simulated urban driving on a closed course.
After getting his PhD, Urmson worked at government services and IT company Science Applications International Corporation on a pedestrian detection and tracking project for one year before returning to Carnegie Mellon for on an assistant professorship. He was hired on to Google's original Self-Driving Car Project team in 2009, leaving Carnegie Mellon in 2011.
I feel lucky to have played a role in building this team from a handful of people into the world-class team it is today, readying self-driving cars that will soon take you from A to B at the push of a button. If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky.
He gave no indication of what his future plans may be. We'd heard almost nothing about what he was working on until early-December, when Recode leaked rumors about Urmson working on a self-driving company:
[Urmson's] company, several sources told Recode, will focus on developing self-driving software, as well as data and hardware. This 'full package' of autonomous technologies could then be sold to car makers that want to create and then alter their own offerings, in a manner not unlike how Google launched its Android efforts with both mobile software and hardware.
Recode's post also noted that Urmson was talking to numerous top autonomous vehicle engineers from many major developers, including Tesla. The allegations in the lawsuit are in agreement with Recode's claim in regard to Urmson talking to Tesla employees.
According to the lawsuit, Urmson was not just talking to, but actively working with Tesla employee Anderson, to recruit from within the company.
The other individual named in the lawsuit, and its main subject, Anderson, joined Tesla in December 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile, and was promoted to Director of Autopilot Programs in November 2015. The lawsuit explains that he was in the process of overseeing the release of the latest Tesla Autopilot upgrade when his employment was terminated suddenly on January 4, 2017.
We don't know when Urmson and Anderson first met, but from their LinkedIn profiles, they shared a common interest in technologies related to autonomous vehicles from around 2007, and both worked in the Silicon Valley area from December 2014, when Anderson joined Tesla.
The two seem to have hooked up at some point along the way, joining forces to create a company called Aurora Innovations, LLC, in Delaware. This company, and their actions in creating it, are the focus of Tesla's lawsuit.
Aurora is likely the mysterious self-driving concept that Urmson's been working on, though, from the (alleged) details of the lawsuit, it seems more like a get-rich-quick scheme aimed at getting a major player in the automotive or technology sector to buy it at a unicorn price. The lawsuit alleges that Anderson had boasted, when trying to recruit engineers, that Aurora had already had meetings with four of the top five automakers.
The timeline of alleged events leading up to this point appears to be as follows. All block quotes below are from the lawsuit unless otherwise attributed. Remember: the lawsuit allegations are just that, allegations that have not been proven in court. The lawsuit doesn't include details on where their information is coming from, so it's hard to prove yes or no if this information is correct.
An Aurora representative said in a statement to TechCrunch that the lawsuit is "meritless" and that it "reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition. This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations." So keep that in mind while reading this through.
Summer 2016 (Prior to August)—Urmson and Anderson Start Planning
During the summer of 2016, Anderson began secret discussions with Christopher Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car initiative until his resignation in early August, concerning the possibility of forming a new venture that would compete with Tesla in the autonomous driving space. This new venture would later be named Aurora.
August 5, 2016—Urmson Leaves Google
As noted above, Urmson gave no hint when leaving Google as to what he might already have planned, or was planning.
October 24, 2106—Aurora Innovation, LLC Incorporated
Aurora is incorporated in Delaware; the preferred choice of many new companies, due to a perception of it being a corporate tax haven.
December 2016—Anderson Tells Tesla He Is Leaving
In early December 2016, Anderson decided to tell Tesla that he would be leaving. Shortly before notifying the company of his plans, however, Anderson confided in one of the Tesla engineers he had been recruiting that he was not going to mention Urmson or the new venture to Tesla, but would instead tell the company only that he was "going to do my own thing for a bit.
Anderson used his additional time at the company to accelerate his recruitment of Tesla employees. He continued to steer engineers to Urmson, so that they could be lobbied to join Aurora, and engaged with other engineers directly. He worked with Urmson on documents with titles such as 'Aurora Innovation Staffing Plan' and 'Recruiting targets,' the latter of which he accessed from Urmson's home on Tesla's time and using his Tesla-issued laptop. During his final weeks at the company, Anderson collaborated with his new business partners through shared cloud-based accounts and Google Hangout sessions—again on Tesla's time, using his Tesla laptop and, in at least some instances, while on site at Tesla.
January 3, 2017—Three Tesla Engineers Announce They Are Leaving for Aurora
On January 3, 2017, three engineers from the Autopilot group informed Tesla that they had decided to join Aurora. (One later changed his mind and remained at Tesla.) Recognizing that the end was near, Anderson undertook to cover his tracks.
The lawsuit also alleges that Anderson wiped data from his smartphone, from his company-issued laptop, and that he attempted to manipulate the timestamps on other files to obscure the dates on which they had been modified or accessed.
January 4, 2017—Anderson, at Urmson's Home, Allegedly Accesses 'Smoking Gun' Document & Is Terminated That Afternoon
On January 4, 2017, Anderson took his Tesla laptop to Urmson's home, accessed a document entitled 'Recruiting targets' and continued to proceed with their Tesla solicitations. Even after Tesla terminated Anderson that afternoon, he and his partners continued to recruit from Tesla in flagrant disregard of the contractual non-solicit, which survives the end of Anderson's employment by 12 months.
January 26, 2017—Tesla Files Lawsuit Against Anderson, Urmson, Aurora, et al.
The lawsuit alleges four breaches of contract that arise from allegations including:
- Anderson's attempts to recruit at least a dozen Tesla employees, and successfully recruiting two of them, whilst still a Tesla employee.
- Anderson's theft of Tesla's data.
- Urmson and Aurora knew of Anderson's agreements and intended to breach and/or disrupt those agreements.
- Urmson and Aurora willfully encouraged Anderson to breach his duty of loyalty.
In order to make their case that Anderson, Urmson, and Aurora are simply looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, the Tesla lawyers cite the recent acquihiring of Cruise Automation by GM, and Otto by Uber. Acquihiring is where a company is acquired primarily for its talented employees who attract a premium sum per head.
Many thought that GM's acquisition of Cruise Automation for a reported $1 billion (or at least $581 million, depending on who you talk to) in March 2016 was overpriced. Shortly thereafter, Otto, a self-driving truck company founded by Urmson's former colleague Anthony Levandowski, among others, was acquired by Uber for $680 million.
These acquihires led former Google Self-Driving Car Project lead Sebastian Thrun to comment that the going rate for self-driving talent is $10 million per person.
The lawsuit refers to these acquisitions with the dismissive comment: "Small teams of programmers with little more than demoware have been bought for as much as a billion dollars."
Well, since Cruise was acquired, they have taken their "demoware" and produced the most remarkable self-driving demonstration video that we have seen, so that comparison kind of falls apart.
With Urmson's reputation as probably being the "best of the best" amongst these highly talented self-driving engineers, there is little doubt that any company founded by him would attract considerable interest from investors.
We know that real aurora are at their most beautiful in the darkest of nights, and we expect that there are many hoping that the very bright light that this Tesla lawsuit is shining on Urmson's Aurora doesn't make it disappear entirely. Only time will tell.
For now, Aurora told TechCrunch that they're looking "forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business."