The departure of Autopilot program Director Sterling Anderson from Tesla last month wasn’t widely reported since it was disclosed only earlier this month when Tesla hired Chris Lattner as Vice President of Autopilot Software.
We now learn that Anderson left the company to start his own with Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self-driving program. Unfortunately, we are learning of this new company through a lawsuit since Tesla is claiming that the Anderson stole data from the Autopilot program and tried to poach employees before leaving.
Through their new company, called Aurora, Anderson and Urmson sent Electrek the following statement denying Tesla’s claim:
“Tesla’s meritless lawsuit reveals both a startling paranoia and an unhealthy fear of competition. This abuse of the legal system is a malicious attempt to stifle a competitor and destroy personal reputations. Aurora looks forward to disproving these false allegations in court and to building a successful self-driving business.”
What Anderson and Urmson are claiming to be “false allegations” are pretty serious.
In the suit (embedded in full below), Tesla claims that Anderson and Urmson have been in discussion about creating a new company since the summer of 2016, Anderson only announced that he was leaving in December 2016. According to Tesla, he didn’t disclose that he was leaving to create a competing company in the autonomous driving space and therefore, he wasn’t terminated and was allowed to stay until the next software update.
Tesla’s lawyers wrote in the suit:
“Obviously, had Anderson disclosed the true facts to Tesla, he would have been terminated immediately. Instead, it was agreed that Anderson would remain with the company through the release of the next Autopilot upgrade, expected within the following several weeks.”
During that time, Tesla alleges that he tried to poach a dozen employees for his new company and that 2 of them decided to follow him.
In order to bypass clauses in his contract that prohibited him to poach employees for another venture, Tesla alleges that Anderson provided Urmson with information about who to pursue in Tesla’s Autopilot team in order for Urmson to approach them.
Again according to the lawsuit, he also kept propriety information about the Autopilot program:
“Anderson also downloaded hundreds of gigabytes of Tesla confidential and proprietary information to his personal Toshiba hard drive. Upon the end of his employment, Anderson was required to return all originals and copies of all documents and other company property in his possession. Anderson returned his company-issued laptop, but not the “backups” he had regularly created, which contain hundreds of gigabytes of data, including some of Tesla’s most competitively sensitive information.”
Tesla had been accumulating more data than any company developing self-driving technology thanks to its large fleet of vehicles equipped with sensors. Anderson is pictured above giving a talk about Tesla’s program and highlighting its data collection. At that time (May 2016), Tesla had accumulated over 780 miles of data. In November, Tesla disclosed having reached 1.3 billion miles.
Furthermore, Tesla claims that Anderson attempted to cover his tracks by “manually hacking the timestamps on files and secure-erasing others” and his laptop used to create backups and wiping his company iPhone on which Tesla claims had “damning evidence of Anderson’s unlawful solicitation of Tesla employees”.
Here’s the lawsuit in full: