Uber says Larry Page was too slippery, asks to quiz him anew
San Francisco: How much does Larry Page know about Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car project, the subject of the high-profile trade-secrets lawsuit his company is pursuing? He doesn’t recall.
Uber Technologies Inc. asked a judge on Wednesday to order Alphabet’s chief executive officer to submit to another two hours of questioning, after the Google co-founder spent four hours giving testimony last month. Uber said Page was ill-prepared for his deposition on 17 July, and that his and Waymo’s lawyers obstructed the process.
The ride-hailing company’s lawyers contend Page is an “important witness” for Uber’s defence against allegations it stole technology central to the development of autonomous vehicles by Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo.
One focus of Page’s testimony was what he recalls of Anthony Levandowski, a former Google engineer whose defection and alleged trade-secret theft is at the heart of the lawsuit. Levandowski isn’t named as a defendant in the suit.
Uber’s lawyers asked Page about Levandowski’s contribution to Google’s autonomous-car effort, as well as the compensation structure for the project.
Engineers at Google’s car project were given massive bonuses, an incentive Page helped set up to encourage the unit to operate like a start-up. Uber has made the argument—which Waymo calls “fictitious”—that Levandowski downloaded files from Google in order to ensure he received his bonus, a $120 million payout that Page was asked about.
In his testimony, Page, an executive averse to public attention, evaded those questions. During the deposition, he used the phrase “I don’t recall” at least 40 times, according to a transcript, which included several redacted portions. He pleaded ignorance of the details of the bonus system and said he wasn’t directly in contact with Levandowski when he was departing Alphabet. Page stressed that he delegated much of the responsibility to deputies, including Waymo CEO John Krafcik.
“Mr. Page made himself available for deposition and was adequately prepared to testify on issues about which he had knowledge,” Waymo said in a statement. “Unsurprisingly, he does not have knowledge of many central events, such as the meetings Uber had with Anthony Levandowski on the very same days Mr. Levandowski downloaded confidential Waymo files to his personal devices.”
One of Uber’s lawyers, Arturo Gonzalez, asked Page when Levandowski left Alphabet, a timeline plotted in furious detail throughout the case. Page said he didn’t know.
When asked whether he authorized the lawsuit against Uber, he disputed that characterization.
“I’m certainly aware of it,” Page said. “I’m not sure I authorized it. I’m not sure that’s the right word.”
Page did say that Levandowski’s overall impact on Google’s autonomous-car program was “quite likely” negative. He also said the one-time star engineer had developed a sour relationship with Chris Urmson, the former head of the project, who left in 2016, as well as a tense relationship with Krafcik, Urmson’s boss.
Page said he didn’t remember ever “seriously considering” naming Levandowski to run Waymo, in response to a question about that possibility. By the time Levandowski left Google in January 2016, opinions differed about his time there, Page said. “I usually try to average them,” he said, referring to the opinions. “And so they averaged to roughly zero, I think.”
On most questions, Page was elusive. Waymo’s lawyers didn’t try hard enough to refresh Page’s memory on topics that are key to the litigation before the executive sat down for the deposition last month, according to a filing by lawyers for Otto Trucking, a company founded by Levandowski that is also a defendant in the case.
“Mr. Page could not recall any trade secrets that are at issue in this litigation,” Otto Trucking said.
Page was also asked about Travis Kalanick, who resigned as Uber’s chief executive officer in June and has become a subject of intensifying interest for Waymo as a trial set for October draws near. Kalanick has said he wanted to meet with Page in March 2015 to discuss a “proper partnership,” according to an email Kalanick sent at the time. But Kalanick said at the time that Page had been “avoiding any meeting with me.”
Page testified that “from time to time” he and Kalanick discussed Uber as a competitor. He said he remembered taking a call from Kalanick “before all this stuff blew up,” referring to the litigation. The subject of that call was blacked out in a redacted section of the deposition transcript. Page confirmed his company still has an investment in Uber.
“It’s a big number,” Page said in a response that was partially blacked out.
Uber’s lawyers asked Page if he ever considered calling Levandowski directly to ask him why he took files from Waymo. The Alphabet CEO said he didn’t.
Did Page ever call his former engineer on his cell phone?
“No,” Page said initially. He then added that it’s “possible” he did. “I don’t remember everyone that I call.”
If Page is ordered to sit for a second deposition, he won’t be the only one in the case to do so. Kalanick agreed to submit to further questioning after forensics experts recently recovered text messages between him and Levandowski too late for his initial deposition last month by Waymo lawyers.
The case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc., 17-cv-00939, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco). Bloomberg