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How Anthony Levandowski Put Himself at the Center of an Industry

If federal prosecutors successfully prosecute Anthony Levandowski for 33 federal charges of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets, the self-driving engineer could face millions in fines and decades in prison. The accusations aren’t new—they rehash the core of Waymo’s civil case against Uber, which settled in February 2018—but their resurfacing in this format threatens to put a dismal end to a career remarkable for its range and variation.

For nearly 20 years, the French-American Levandowski has played a kind of purposeful Forrest Gump for the world of autonomous driving. Rather than stumbling into the center of one momentous event after another, Levandowski has put himself there. And he has left a mixed trail in his wake: Former colleagues have described him as brilliant, engaging, motivating, fast-charging, inconsiderate, a weasel, and just plain evil.

None, though, deny that whether for good or ill, the benefit of society or himself, Levandowski has played a propulsive role in the development of self-driving tech. So while his future is up in the air, let’s take a look back at where he’s been.

The Kid With the Motorcycle

After spending his childhood in Belgium (where his mother worked for the European Union), Levandowski moved to the US at 14 to live with his father and attend high school in Marin County, north of San Francisco. He dabbled in robotics while studying industrial engineering at UC Berkeley and made the move into autonomous vehicles when he entered the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge—a seminal event that helped launch the self-driving industry we know today.

For the 142-mile race from Barstow, California, to Primm, Nevada, Levandowski ran what he called the Blue Team, staffed by his classmates. Working out of his house in Berkeley, they created Ghostrider, a motorcycle that balanced and drove itself. Levandowski argued that the agility of a bike would be an asset in the race across the Mojave Desert, but the cool factor of going with two wheels—a move nobody else tried—helped him attract sponsors and media attention. It also earned the Blue Team a place in the final round of the 2004 competition, despite a shabby showing in the qualifying round. “It was such a PR attraction that we had to bring it to the desert and see what it did,” said Jose Negron, the Darpa official who organized the race.

Anthony Levandowski with motorcycle

Levandowski's entry for the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, Ghostrider, crashed a few feet into a 142-mile race.

Kim Kulish/Getty Images

It didn’t do much: Because Levandowski forgot to turn on the stabilizing system, the motorcycle fell over a few feet from the starting line. Even for a race in which no vehicle went more than 7.4 miles, it was a particularly ignoble failure.

Levandowski and his teammates reprised the effort for the 2005 Grand Challenge, but Ghostrider was never a serious threat to the more capable vehicles developed by the likes of Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities. The second time around, Levandowski’s bid ended in the qualifying round. But his high-profile presence set him up for a career in what he would help make a booming industry.

Going Pro

Levandowski didn’t find success at the 2005 Grand Challenge, but he did find his next venture. In the garage spot next to his (the qualifiers were held at the Fontana Speedway in San Bernardino County) was Dave Hall, who came to the race with a new invention, the first lidar scanner created for an autonomous vehicle. When Darpa announced plans for another autonomous vehicle race, the 2007 Urban Challenge, Hall pivoted his speaker company, Velodyne, into the lidar business. His spinning sensor, using 64 laser beams, offered a far more detailed view of its surroundings than any competitor. Hall hired Levandowski to travel the country and sell it to teams competing in the race. Of the six teams that completed the Urban Challenge, five had paid $75,000 for a Velodyne lidar.

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