Jeff Jones departure stuns Uber, Waymo’s case against Uber, and Airbnb eyes the skies
|Ali Griswold||Mar 21, 2017|
Uber ride-sharing president Jeff Jones resigned Sunday (March 19). The former Target exec had been at the company for less than six months. He joined Aug. 30, 2016, with a wide-ranging mandate to improve Uber’s public image, leadership caliber, and relationships with drivers. But Jones’ first big public gesture to drivers was a disastrous Q&A on Facebook on Feb. 16. The Uber exec offered faint praise to some drivers while dodging questions about tipping, fare cuts, and other controversial business practices. He bowed out after just 30 minutes.
Jones is the latest high-profile departure to hit Uber this year. The company has also bid farewell to SVP of engineering Amit Singhal, VP of product and growth Ed Baker, famed Jeep hacker Charlie Miller, senior self-driving engineer Raffi Krikorian, director of AI labs Gary Marcus, and VP of maps Brian McClendon. Some of those departures were more amicable than others. But Jones’ resignation seems to have caught the company uniquely off guard—“completely unexpected,” as one person told the BBC.
Uber’s leadership has never been more in flux. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s beleaguered CEO, said March 7 that he would hire a chief operating officer to serve as his no. 2. The BBC went on to report that Kalanick could step down as soon as that new executive is put in place. Uber, meanwhile, has insinuated that Jones felt threatened by the COO hiring plans. “After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber,” Kalanick told staff in an email. Jones gave a different reason. “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber,” he wrote. “I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business.”
Elsewhere: Uber slashes plans for Oakland office expansion. Bill Gurley is worried about Uber. Know more? Contact me on WhatsApp, Signal, Wickr, and good old-fashioned email. PGP: A2EF 8E4A A944 55F7 96FF E0F1 AF53 BEC4 DAA3 436E.
Executive exodus, sexual harassment, dash-cam leaks, Greyball, #deleteUber—the whole sorry saga could end up a mere sideshow to Waymo’s trade secrets lawsuit against Uber and Otto, the self-driving trucking startup it acquired last summer. The Feb. 23 complaint from Waymo, the self-driving car spinoff of Alphabet née Google, is a doozy. Waymo alleges that Uber and Otto engaged in “calculated theft” to copy its proprietary Lidar technology and jumpstart their autonomous vehicle project. Lidar, as in “light radar,” is a crucial component of driverless technologies, essentially letting the vehicle see.
Waymo claims its former employee, Otto founder and current head of self-driving technologies at Uber Anthony Levandowski, stole significant portions of this technology. Per the complaint, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files—“approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data”—prior to his January 2016 departure. Other Waymo employees who later left to join Levandowski also downloaded trade secrets before leaving the company, such as supplier lists and manufacturing details. Sparing no adjective, Waymo’s complaint calls the theft “intentional, knowing, willful, malicious, fraudulent, and oppressive.”
The current going master theory is that Levandowski arranged with Uber to leave Waymo with Lidar designs in-hand, start Otto to seem legitimate, and then sell Otto to Uber a few months later, delivering those stolen self-driving technologies to one of Waymo’s biggest competitors. This would of course be Very Bad and as master theories go, the evidence in favor is pretty compelling. Bloomberg reported last summer that Kalanick had been surreptitiously courting Levandowski for an acquisition since the spring. But Waymo engineer Pierre-Yves Droz said in his (largely redacted) deposition that Levandowski “told me that he planned to ‘replicate’ [Lidar] Waymo technology at his new company.” Droz also said Levandowski had previously floated creating a startup that Uber would go on to acquire in summer 2015, after speaking with then-Uber exec Brian McClendon.
Waymo is seeking an injunction that would effectively block Uber’s work on its self-driving car project. Uber is pushing for arbitration. An injunction would be devastating to Uber, which has lost money hand-over-fist—$3 billion in 2016 alone—while prophesying the day that autonomous vehicles will radically reduce the costs of ride-hailing. “What would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way," Kalanick told Business Insider last summer. If Waymo gets its way in court, that could be exactly what happens.
Stop to shop.
Here is a good story from Bloomberg on Amazon’s decade-long attempt to crack online grocery. It opens with a summary of what sounds like the most enjoyable paper ever from a mechanical engineering student, which found that Amazon was at one point “very wasteful” in how it sold bananas:
Workers at Amazon Fresh, the company’s grocery-delivery business, threw away about a third of the bananas it purchased because the service only sold the fruit in bunches of five, the student concluded. Employees trimmed each bunch down to size and chucked the excess.
The research paper by Vrajesh Modi, who now works for Boston Consulting Group, highlighted other problems: Poorly trained employees often stood around with nothing to do. Moldy strawberries were frequently returned by disappointed customers. Amazon’s inspectors believed their corporate bosses didn’t care much about the quality of the food.
“Online grocery is failing,” says Kurt Jetta, CEO at Tabs Analytics. “There’s just not a lot of demand there. The whole premise is that you’re saving people a trip to the store, but people actually like going to the store to buy groceries.” (Instacart, meanwhile, recently raised another $400 million.)
A home in the sky.
The sky’s the limit for Airbnb, which is thinking about getting into air travel. “The aviation industry has not changed a lot since I was a kid,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in an interview with Sunday Today. “It feels like there’s a pretty big revolution coming there.” What would that look like? “I think the simple question would be, what if flying was the best part of the travel experience?” Chesky says. “What if the plane felt a little more like a home in the sky? What if the experience getting there was almost seamless and frictionless … I think all of these things are design solutions.” Design, or, you know, aeronautics.
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