Uber engineers are looking to leave as a court case puts the self-driving future in limbo

Travis Kalanick, Co-founder and CEO of Uber.
David Orrell | CNBC
Travis Kalanick, Co-founder and CEO of Uber.

Uber, already dealing with a litany of crises — including a lawsuit brought by rival Alphabet — could also be facing an exodus of key talent.

Some of the startup's engineers are actively looking to get out of the company, according to multiple sources. The situation is being prompted in part by Alphabet's case against Uber.

The suit centers on Anthony Levandowski, who had led Uber's self-driving technology division, but recently announced he was moving away from his role as the case plays out. Second-in-command Eric Meyehofer has temporarily taken over, but the legal situation has left most Uber engineers in limbo, sources say.

Instead of waiting for a court decision that could squash Uber's ambitions to deploy autonomous vehicles, a number of its engineers are looking for other opportunities. Others have decided to look elsewhere if the judge grants Alphabet the injunction.

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Self-driving talent is in high demand, with some major automakers and tech companies pouring millions if not billions into "acqhiring" entire teams before they've even had an opportunity to launch their company. (See: Ford and Argo, Uber and Otto.)

Part of what's driving these potential moves is the frustration many staffers feel from the pending lawsuit, sources say. Staffers may have to step away from the work they spent so much time developing, just as the company began putting their cars on the road.

Needless to say, morale is at an all-time low. Another camp of staffers, who've all but assumed Levandowski will be pushed out and didn't agree with his leadership to begin with, are waiting it out and are looking forward to seeing the department refocus its efforts on showing off its new tech.

The judge expects to issue his decision sometime this week. An injunction could mean a lot of things. Uber might have to stop work on its autonomous cars entirely or just stop using technology that Alphabet claims was stolen. It could also mean that the court would make Levandowski's recusal official and any violation of the court order to stop working would result in legal ramifications.

Sources say it's unlikely Levandowski's recusal would amount to any practical differences in the way the department is run. As part of his decision to move away from leading the company's self-driving efforts, Levandowski put Meyehofer in charge. However, Meyehofer, sources say, is close to both Levandowski and Kalanick. In fact, an Uber engineer testified on May 4 that Meyehofer continued to work with Levandowski on a daily basis.

But a new hire, by way of the University of Toronto, might help the company retain some of its talent. Raquel Urtasun, a leading mind in machine learning and AI research, will be heading up Uber's self-driving expansion into Canada. Urtasun will be joined by eight of her students and will continue to teach at the University part-time.

Uber declined to comment for this story.

By Johana Bhuiyan, Recode.net.

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