SAN FRANCISCO — At a technology conference in mid-2014, the Google co-founder Sergey Brin presented the company’s first prototype for a self-driving car. Watching in the audience was Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, the ride-hailing start-up.
Mr. Brin’s presentation in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. — including a video of a compact two-seater autonomously doing laps around a parking lot — jolted Mr. Kalanick, according to two people who spoke with him. Google, the search giant — long considered an Uber ally — seemed to be turning on him. And even as Uber was a growing force to be reckoned with, it was lacking in self-driving car technology, an important field of study that might affect the future of transportation.
So Mr. Kalanick spent much of 2015 raiding Google’s engineering corps. To learn about the technology, he struck up a friendship with Anthony Levandowski, a top autonomous vehicle engineer at “G-co,” Mr. Kalanick’s pet name for Google.
The two men often spoke for hours about the future of driving, meeting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and walking five miles to the Golden Gate Bridge, according to two people familiar with the executives, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The friendship developed into a partnership. Mr. Levandowski left Google last year to form Otto, a self-driving trucking start-up. Uber acquired it months later for nearly $700 million. Mr. Kalanick subsequently appointed Mr. Levandowski to run Uber’s autonomous vehicle research.
That relationship has since set off a legal morass, with Google’s self-driving vehicle business — now called Waymo — accusing Mr. Levandowski of creating Otto as a front to steal trade secrets from Google, then using the findings with Uber’s driverless cars. On Monday, a federal judge in San Francisco barred Mr. Levandowski from working on a crucial component of Uber’s self-driving car technology for the duration of the case.
The implications are set to reverberate far beyond the courtroom. Any setback for Uber will shake up the driverless car industry, which is locked in a bitter race to introduce and commercialize autonomous cars. Silicon Valley tech titans and Detroit automakers are making huge investments — bets that autonomous vehicle technology will usher in a new age of how people get around. For some companies, especially traditional carmakers, their very survival is at stake.
While Google has been developing autonomous vehicle technology for more than a decade, others have raced to catch up. General Motors, Ford, Apple, Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among those that have jumped in. All are competing — and sometimes cooperating — for a slice of a new market expected to top $77 billion over the next two decades, according to a study from Boston Consulting Group.
Uber has been ahead of many others in publicly testing autonomous vehicles. Last year, the company began a pilot program of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh; it has also done testing in San Francisco and Tempe, Ariz.
That aggressiveness has spurred an intense rivalry with Waymo. Waymo’s legal pursuit of Uber and Mr. Levandowski is out of corporate character; Google has tended to refrain from suing former employees who move to competitors. Many at Google and Waymo are incensed at Mr. Levandowski and how he may have betrayed them for a rich payday, according to current and former employees.
That has pushed Waymo to strike back. Beyond suing Uber, Waymo said on Sunday it had teamed up with Lyft, a ride-hailing rival, on driverless car initiatives.
“This is a race where every single minute seems to…
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