Autonomous tech / Entertainment

Read between the lines and you’ll find a lot of Pittsburgh ties in ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’

The limited series, streaming on Showtime, tracks the rise and fall of Uber cofounder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. But on the outskirts of his drama are dynamics that Pittsburgh was heavily woven into.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Uber's Travis Kalanick in "Super Pumped." (Screenshot via YouTube)
Pittsburgh missed its chance to get Uber to establish a long-term presence here for research and development. But maybe that’s a good thing?

In the February-released Showtime limited series “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” the network tells the story of the rise and fall of Travis Kalanick, cofounder and former CEO of the ride-sharing giant, who is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Spanning from the company’s first significant VC raise to Kalanick’s eventual ousting over workplace harassment issues, unethical uses of data and associations with trade secret violators, a big part of the show focuses on Uber’s foray into the autonomous vehicle industry in the late 2010s.

Though Pittsburgh is not specifically named in the series, the city’s fingerprints are all over the implied conversations happening in the background when it comes to autonomous vehicles and Uber’s typically tense relationships with city governments.

Of course, while the seven-episode show is based on true events, it’s certainly a dramatization of the wild world of Silicon Valley and venture capital in the past decade, joining Hulu’s take on the Theranos scandal with “The Dropout” and Apple TV’sWeCrashed” series on WeWork in cataloguing the dark side to unbridled entrepreneurship the world’s seen in recent years. Whether exaggerated or not, the essence of each of these shows holds truth, and the toxic personalities at their centers are often cited by Pittsburgh-based founders as a reason they chose to grow their companies away from Silicon Valley.

“Super Pumped” is worth watching if you have the time, but here are a few characters and plot lines from it that reminded us of the Steel City.

Uber launched its first self-driving car unit in Pittsburgh in 2016

Much of the second half of “Super Pumped” is devoted to Kalanick’s interest in pursuing self-driving cars in an effort to eventually replace the need for drivers. The show makes it seem like that interest stems from both an obsession with Google (which had begun to develop tech for autonomous vehicles) and a disrespect for the drivers Uber relies on for its entire business structure. Whether or not those implications are true, the self-driving initiatives of the company end up playing a big role in the show — more to come on that later — so it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh is the city Uber to chose to launch its first fleet of test cars in 2016.

Shortly after the fleet launched, former mayor Bill Peduto was quoted in the New York Times as saying “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.” But while Peduto ushered in the tech giant with open arms, he soon fell victim to what was likely a version of the flippant selfishness of Kalanick in “Super Pumped.”

With San Francisco, Portland and other cities in the early days of the company, Kalanick is depicted as making promises to mayors, public officials, drivers, investors, employees and more about the guaranteed success of Uber. But when things didn’t go completely according to plan, those guarantees shifted. And given some of the public details that emerged from his and Peduto’s falling out, it’s not far-fetched to think a similar dynamic may have been going on in this case, too.

Uber’s self-driving unit was purchased by a local AV company

Spoiler alert: Uber’s plan to develop autonomous cars didn’t work out. Pittsburgh-founded autonomous vehicle company Aurora acquired the unit at the end of 2020, bumping up the local company’s valuation to $10 billion ahead of a SPAC deal that it completed last fall.  The acquisition didn’t come as a total surprise, given reports of struggles within Uber’s Advanced Technologies Unit, aka Uber ATG, and the fallout of a fatal 2018 crash involving one of the vehicles in Tempe, Arizona.

The loss of the unit might’ve been bad for Uber, but it was good for Pittsburgh. The acquisition further strengthened the autonomous vehicle presence here, retaining advanced technology and talent that investors had already demonstrated interest in. One result from the deal that remains unclear is exactly what happened with Austin Geidt, who played a big role in “Super Pumped” as an intern who worked her way up through the company to eventually become the head of strategy for Uber ATG. She reportedly left Uber in 2020, likely coinciding with the acquisition. And as of this writing, it remains unclear what she’s up to today.

Local AV industry leaders worked with Anthony Levandowski

Another divisive character in “Super Pumped,” and in the tech industry in general, is Anthony Levandowski, a former software engineer at Google who helped found the company’s self-driving unit. He was later convicted of trade secret theft and sentenced to 18 months in prison for downloading his work from Google to use as the foundation for the autonomous trucking company he launched shortly after leaving, Otto. Uber later acquired that company, in a deal that “Super Pumped” suggests had been planned all along, even while Levandowski was still at Google. After that deal went through, Uber was eventually hit with a $4 billion lawsuit from Google as well. And that was the end of the story, until former President Donald Trump pardoned Levandowski in his final days as president. Now, the ex-Google engineer is working in the autonomous vehicle industry yet again as cofounder and CEO of Pronto.

The reason all of this matters is because at least one prominent AV leader in Pittsburgh worked with Levandowski in his days at Google: Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson. He was one of the other engineers who helped launch Google’s self-driving initiative, Project Chauffeur, in the early 2010s.

Don’t worry, he wasn’t involved in any of the trade secret theft. In fact, a New Yorker article published on the scandal at the time credited Urmson with cleaning up the mess Levandowski made on his way out. And in fact, a book published in 2020 on the race to launch autonomous vehicles cites the two as rivals, making the author and this tech reporter wish the personal dynamics of the Uber ATG acquisition had made it onto the show.

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Aurora / Google / Uber

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