Little more than a week after Uber dismissed the embattled engineer at the helm of its self-driving car project, the company is appointing a new head of hardware engineering to help lead its development of autonomous vehicles.
Brian Zajac has worked at Uber since the early stages of its autonomous vehicle development in 2015, and previously developed robotic systems for the US Army and Shell Oil. He also contributed to research and development of a disaster-response robot at Carnegie Mellon University. (Uber poached extensively from the university to beef up its autonomous vehicle staff, though it’s unclear whether Zajac’s coming on board was part of that hiring spree.)
With his promotion, Zajac will report directly to Eric Meyhofer, who took over Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group after Uber fired ATG’s former lead, Anthony Levandowski, for refusing to cooperate in a trade secret theft investigation.
Uber’s self-driving efforts have been mired in controversy. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, sued Uber in February, alleging that Levandowski stole 14,000 confidential documents containing trade secrets from Waymo and used them to develop self-driving tech at Uber. Under Levandowski’s supervision, the company also got wrist-slapped by the California Department of Motor Vehicles for refusing to obtain the necessary permits for testing its vehicles on San Francisco streets. Uber currently tests in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and has since been permitted to resume testing in California.
Levandowski was only fired after the judge overseeing Waymo’s case pressured Uber to either get the allegedly stolen documents back from the engineer or fire him. Levandowski’s lawyers argued in court yesterday that the judge’s order amounted to “substantial economic coercion” to get Levandowski to waive his constitutional rights against self-incrimination. But even Uber’s own lawyers weren’t buying that argument, and told the judge Levandowski was fired “for reasons independent of the court order.”
Levandowski contributed to the design of lidar and other hardware systems at Uber, and whether those systems rely on Waymo trade secrets will be at the heart of the lawsuit as it moves forward. Zajac is now charged with overseeing the development of those same systems.
Uber is locked in a race with Waymo and other competitors to be the first company to put fully autonomous vehicles on the road—an innovation that Uber has said is central to the success of its business.
“As the Head of Hardware Engineering, Brian looks forward to continuing ATG’s journey towards building self-driving vehicles at scale and expanding the system’s capabilities through next generation hardware technologies,” an Uber spokesperson told Gizmodo. Zajac previously developed custom cameras for Uber’s self-driving cars and worked on configuring those cameras with lidar and radar systems.
Uber’s custom lidar products aren’t road-ready, the company said earlier this year. But several of Zajac’s hardware developments are already incorporated into Uber’s fleet of vehicles.