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 MotorcycleAfter 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.
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.