Fight Over Tesla’s Self-Driving Pro Shows Talent War Escalating

  • GM, Uber acquisitions contribute to autonomous startup frenzy
  • Tesla cites ‘get-rich-quick environment’ in Autopilot suit

Race To Build Self-Driving Cars Accelerates

There was chatter for months within the tight-knit network of Silicon Valley self-driving whizzes: Where was one of their industry’s most-prominent players going to land?

The world found out last week when Tesla Motors Inc. sued Sterling Anderson, the former director of its Autopilot program. The electric-car maker alleged Anderson started working months ago with Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self-driving car program.

The legal fight involving autonomous-driving hot shots is the latest to show how the war for talent in Silicon Valley is heating up, as tech and auto companies alike compete for skilled engineers. Autonomous-vehicle startups are emerging at a frenetic pace after General Motors Co. and Uber Technologies Inc. valued upstarts -- each with just a few dozen employees -- as worth hundreds of millions of dollars in separate acquisitions last year.

“All of the sudden, people realize that self-driving cars are becoming a reality,” said Sebastian Thrun, who founded Google’s self-driving car project and researches robotics and artificial intelligence as a professor at Stanford University. “Every CEO of an automaker has made autonomous cars a priority, and 2016 was the year when people of influence woke up to the potential of this.”

Urmson led what’s now known as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo starting in 2009 and oversaw about 1.8 million miles of driving before leaving in August. Anderson managed Autopilot’s hardware and software teams and helped steer Tesla through a regulatory probe involving a driver who died in a Model S sedan using the system last year. Anderson left Tesla in December.

Tesla’s Complaint

Tesla’s lawsuit against Anderson, filed in a California state court, revealed that Urmson and Anderson started a competing venture called Aurora Innovation LLC. The lawsuit alleges Anderson attempted to poach colleagues from Tesla and violated his contract, speaking to the threat more established companies face when executives with experience leading teams in a highly competitive field want to move on.

Aurora called the Tesla suit “meritless” and “a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor” in a statement last week.

“This is the most impactful large-scale deployment of advanced technology in the past 100 years,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “To get it right will require an unprecedented degree of collaboration across high-tech disciplines, meaning the company with the largest brain trust has the greatest advantage.”

Tesla’s lawsuit follows Uber’s acquisition in August of Otto, a self-driving truck startup that had been founded seven months earlier, in a deal worth as much as $680 million. General Motors Co. in March announced plans to buy Cruise Automation and later disclosed paying about $581 million at closing.

The total cost of the deal would be more over time, Detroit-based GM said in July. By October, Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s founder, paid more than $21 million for what the San Francisco Business Times said at the time was the most expensive home sale in the city year to date.

‘Get Rich Quick’

“In their zeal to play catch-up, traditional automakers have created a get-rich-quick environment,” Tesla said in its lawsuit against Anderson. “Small teams of programmers with little more than demoware have been bought for as much as $1 billion,” the company said, referring to GM’s purchase of Cruise and reports of the deal’s total value.

Engineers have plenty options for employment within the burgeoning field of autonomous driving. In California, 21 companies have been issued autonomous-vehicle testing permits from the state’s department of motor vehicles. The ranks include established automakers Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG; suppliers Robert Bosch GmbH and Delphi Automotive Plc; and lesser-known startups including Zoox Inc., AutoX Technologies Inc. and Drive.ai Inc.

‘Inevitable’ Fights

Google last month filed suit against a former software engineer, alleging the employee breached contract obligations related to the possession and use of confidential information. The ex-employee, Leonid Shamis, reportedly joined Drive.ai in November.

Personnel moves within the self-driving space are fast and frequent. Andrew Gray, an early member of Tesla’s Autopilot team, joined Cruise Automation in September 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. After GM said it would acquire Cruise, Gray left for Otto, a startup founded by former Google employees, which was then bought by Uber. Gray’s journey spanning these companies transpired over the course of little more than a year.

“Many of the companies involved in automated driving are motivated by an intense combination of hope, greed and fear,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who’s written about driverless car liability. “The tremendous competition for individuals and ideas was inevitably going to reach a courtroom, particularly given all the overlapping and conflicting interests in this field.”

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