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In Travis Kalanick’s first public appearance since resigning from Uber, his competitive nature was put on trial

Kalanick took the witness stand in Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick onstage holding a microphone and pointing at the audience VCG / Getty

The legal saga between tech behemoths Alphabet and Uber began with a bruising condemnation of Uber’s former CEO.

“This case is about one competitor deciding they need to win at all costs,” an attorney for Alphabet said in his opening statement on Monday.

“Mr Kalanick, the CEO at the time at Uber, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” he continued.

On Tuesday, the second day of trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, an uncharacteristically soft-spoken Kalanick took the stand to face these accusations head on.

It’s the first time the notoriously combative former CEO of Uber has spoken publicly since he was ousted by major shareholders in June 2017.

While Kalanick, who donned a dark suit and tie, answered questions about his aggressive ambitions to win the self-driving car race, the normally emotive Uber co-founder appeared restrained even when asked to concede that Google was in the self-driving lead.

The attorney asked if he agreed that Google is the industry leader for autonomous vehicles.

“I think that’s the general perception right now,” he answered.

Kalanick’s testimony will likely be a central part of Alphabet’s argument. Alphabet is alleging Uber worked with former engineer Anthony Levandowski to steal self-driving trade secrets before he left Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving arm, and created a startup that he would eventually sell to Uber.

The company has to prove that Uber, not Levandowski — who is not a party to the case and has pleaded the Fifth Amendment — misappropriated Waymo’s self-driving trade secrets. That’s why shifting to focus on Kalanick and his — as Waymo has characterized — rapacious nature is important for Waymo’s case.

If Uber loses the case, it could have to pay out millions of dollars in damages and potentially stall its self-driving efforts. For Waymo, losing the case will have largely reputational risks. Alphabet rarely, if ever, sues over any issues with people or other companies, which means this litigation carries a lot of weight.

Waymo’s strategy so far appears to be attempting to prove that Kalanick was fixated on beating Google and winning the self-driving car race at all costs, which could in turn serve to explain his motivation to conspire with Levandowski.

Uber contends that Waymo’s claims are baseless and that none of the files ever made it to the company.

That arrangement to acquire Otto wasn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill deal, however. As Kalanick testified, he had conversations with Levandowski before he started the company about working for Uber.

“Look, I wanted to hire Anthony and he wanted to start a company, so I tried to come up with a situation where he could feel like he started a company and I could feel like I hired him,” Kalanick said when asked about his early conversations with Levandowski.

Kalanick’s desire to hire Levandowski to help lead Uber’s growing self-driving team, first created in 2015, came out of a frustration with the pace of Uber’s self-driving development. As Recode previously reported, Kalanick had been unsatisfied with Uber’s self-driving progress when it became clear that the company would not be able to meet the initial deadline of launching a self-driving pilot in August 2016.

During his testimony, Kalanick echoed his previously publicized feeling that driverless cars were essential for Uber’s success, and the key to scaling a successful fleet of self-driving cars was good lasers.

In a handwritten note submitted as evidence in the case, Kalanick wrote, “laser is the sauce.”

But it’s Kalanick’s emphasis on lasers that Waymo is trying to exploit. Waymo’s attorneys attempted to establish that Levandowski was highly incentivized to achieve very ambitious technical milestones by a certain deadline. Ostensibly, the implication here is he would stop at nothing to meet those milestones, even appropriating trade secrets.

Those technical milestones were set by Uber as part of the terms of acquiring Levandowski’s startup — an acquisition Uber’s then head of autonomous driving John Bares said he had concerns about, according to Bares’s testimony. Each of those technical laser milestones had monetary incentives tied to them.

For instance, if and when Levandowski’s team outfitted a car with a prototype of a long-range laser-based radars, called lidar, that had a visual range of 250 meters, the team would be able to get 6 percent of the approximately $590 million sale price, according to a document produced during Kalanick’s testimony.

However, Kalanick also pointed out that they would be able to get that same monetary incentive if the overall mission of the team was successful.

Kalanick’s testimony will continue on Wednesday.

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