Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reveals how his dream to partner with Google crumbled

Key Points
  • Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said he was "constantly making a pitch to partner" with Google's self-driving car unit, but Alphabet's Larry Page wasn't interested.
  • Page and Waymo's CEO were both upset by Uber's acquisition of a former Google employee's start-up.
  • Kalanick suspected that another start-up CEO might be feeding Uber information to Page.
Larry Page
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Google and Uber mulled teaming up on self-driving car technology, but the relationship iced over, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a deposition published this weekend.

The deposition centers on an ongoing lawsuit between Alphabet's self-driving car unit Waymo (formerly all under Google) and Uber. The tech giants are fighting over whether a star self-driving car engineer, Anthony Levandowski, stole and used a Google technology at Uber.

But the hours-long deposition also sheds light on the disintegration of the relationship between Uber and one of its biggest investors, Google. Google Ventures reportedly about $250 million in Uber in 2013, one of its largest deals at the time, giving Kalanick wide range to do whatever he pleased.

Since then, though, Uber and Google have shifted from partners to a "cold war." The companies are not only involved in this lawsuit, but Waymo recently agreed to team up with Uber's arch-rival, Lyft, to help bring self-driving cars to market.

Here are some events that Kalanick said splintered the relationship between the two companies:

Google told Uber it was getting serious about ride-sharing. David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google and former board member at Uber, agreed to "recuse himself from board meetings" around October 2014, according to Kalanick.

"He said that Google is intending to compete with Uber in the ridesharing space. And that the efforts were substantive enough and serious enough that he felt compelled to tell us that that was happening."

Kalanick continued, "I don't remember my exact words, but I remember feeling disappointed a little bit, a little burned by the relationship."

Kalanick was concerned that a start-up called Argo AI, founded by an ex-Googler, was trying to collect intel to feed back to Google. Uber began talking to Anthony Levandowski, a star Google engineer, in late 2015, and Levandowski started spending more time with him in early 2016.

During the same period, Uber was also looking at acquiring another start-up run by an ex-Google employee with the last name "Salesky," (presumably Brian Salesky of Argo AI, which later took a big investment from Ford, although the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment).

"Lots of people were looking to leave Google at this time. And most of their top people were leaving," Kalanick said. But Kalanick said he was "quite worried" that Salesky was still in communication with Google co-founder Larry Page.

"Because Salesky was — my understanding — again, I've never met him, but my understanding of the meetings they had with him, you could never quite trust him. And so he was talking to us about working with us in some way. We weren't sure if he was talking to us about working with us or talking to us and then going back to Google and telling him — telling them everything that he learned by talking us," Kalanick said.

Waymo exec sent an e-mail trashing the engineers Uber acquired with Otto. When Uber ultimately decided to acquire Levandowski's start-up, Otto, in 2016, Kalanick said that his then-deputy, Emil Michael, received a "lowbrow" email from Waymo CEO John Krafcik, insulting the qualifications of the former Google employees that Uber had acquired.

"It's strange for a leader to talk trash on the people that he hired just because they leave and work somewhere else," Kalanick said.

Waymo and Alphabet were cool to a partnership. Nonetheless, Drummond, Krafcik and Kalanick met in Mountain View during the same summer that Otto was acquired to see if they could put a partnership together between Waymo and Uber, according to Kalanick.

"I think it was the first time we were meeting Krafcik. He gave us a tour of the -- some of the facility, and then we spent the conversation with us talking -- you know, myself and Emil talking about our ideas for how we could partner. And Krafcik really sort of not deeply engaging in the -- in the conversation," Kalanick said.

Kalanick said he was "constantly making a pitch to partner with them," something that Drummond had advocated for.

"He was a big believer it was the right thing. I was a big believer it was the right thing. I could get my company behind that. David couldn't get — couldn't get, you know, Larry [Page] and other folks and just Google, essentially, behind that notion," Kalanick said.

Larry Page got paranoid about Uber stealing their IP. In October of 2016, Kalanick said he asked Page to call him to talk about "flying cars," an area of technology that Uber is interested in, and that Page has invested in through a start-up called Kitty Hawk.

But Kalanick said he also wanted to discuss partnering on driverless cars.

Kalanick's pitch was "was very similar to all the considerations I have had over the years, which is: You guys have -- you guys have been working on this quite a while. You have great expertise. We have developing expertise, but we haven't been in this industry as long. We certainly have a lot of ridesharing things going on. There could be a really interesting .... potential in partnering those two efforts."

But Page still didn't seem interested, and was a bit upset, suggesting they could discuss it again at the beginning of 2017, according to Kalanick.

"[W]hat he kept talking about us taking his IP," Kalanick said. "And I kept responding and telling him that hiring his people is not taking his IP. .... And he kept not understanding that, but not explaining himself either. He wasn't getting into details or in any way sort of helping me understand his issue. .... I told him, we will open up our facility if you think we have taken IP. Like, come take a look. We will have your people take a look. We will dig deep and make sure. But we were very confident about the process of acquisition and the process we have in hiring people."

It was just strange," Kalanick said. "He — he kind of just kept repeating the same thing. This is what I remember. I don't remember the specific words, but it was like he was repeating the same thing over and over."