Waymo’s top lawyer explains how the self-driving leader is expanding its reach — and defending its turf (GOOGL)

Vosen was interested in the tech industry from the time he graduated from Harvard Law School.

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For an ongoing series, Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company. This is the latest profile in the series. To read the others, click here. For a brief history of Waymo, click here.

For most casual observers, and even quite a few expert analysts, the burgeoning autonomous-mobility business has, for more than a decade, been a gigantic science project. 

That’s understandable, as the engineering challenge is enormous. Several industry leaders have described it to me as being harder than sending Apollo 11 to land on the Moon in 1969.

As the technology starts to find more real-world applications, however, self-driving cars are going to become less about cutting-edge science and more about the nuts-and-bolts of making the services they provide safe and reliable for customers.

This is where Kevin Vosen comes in. He’s the chief legal officer for Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomy division (previously known as Google’s Self-Driving Car project). 

Vosen doesn’t design software simulations, develop testing environments for Waymo’s vehicles, create new laser-radar technology, train truckers, fabricate vehicles, or grapple with the company’s evolving user experience, but his role is a crucial one. He oversees everything that Waymo does that might entail interactions with a dizzying range of laws and regulations, some not-yet written, as well as a growing list of partnerships and investors.

A tech-industry veteran

The Duke and Harvard Law School graduate is no stranger to Silicon Valley. “That’s where the energy and excitement were,” he said of the Bay Area and his motivation for moving west in 1997. “You could do the most innovative work here as a lawyer.” 

Vosen started his career concentrating on startups and emerging-technology companies, working at a succession of jobs that enabled him to develop expertise where tech and regulations overlap. As general counsel at firms that were early to dealing with governments, he served in legal leadership roles. He “got a taste of being chief legal officer,” he said, at the Climate Corporation, an agricultural software business firm acquired by Monsanto in 2013.

But “when Waymo reached out, it was a no-brainer,” he added. And that’s where he’s been since 2016. 

Unlike legacy automakers that have been dealing with regulators on multiple continents for decades, Waymo is charting a course through unexplored legal waters. No one has ever tried to build up a self-driving business before, and Waymo’s ambitions are hardly modest. The company wants to offer a ride-hailing service (Waymo One), carry freight (Waymo Via), and provide last-mile integration with public transit.

“We’ve influenced AV regulations since the beginning,” he said. And while one might suspect Waymo of pushing for a playing field that favors the company, governments need guidance. The software is complicated, the hardware is new. Almost all of it has been invented in the past 10 years. Waymo also intends to operate in varied sectors of the economy: transporting folks in driverless minivans is completely different from hauling freight in hulking, highway-bound semis.

“Virtually every effort that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has undertaken, we’ve had a part in,” he said, noting that the federal effort has been matched at the state level. Waymo has rolled out a ride-hailing service in Arizona and has been testing in California for years since then-governor Jerry Brown went to Google headquarters in 2012 to sign the law that allowed self-driving vehicles to hit the public roads.

Defending Waymo’s IP — but welcoming competition

Vosen’s team also focuses on intellectual property, not merely to protect Waymo’s investments, but to ensure that the self-driving industry develops fairly. “We protect our trade secrets, so there isn’t unfair competition,” he said, pointing to Waymo’s high-profile lawsuit against Uber for alleged trade secret theft (the companies settled), and the related criminal prosecution of former Googler Anthony Levandowski, who was ultimately pardoned by Donald Trump.

“That was a case where we decided to protect our IP,” Vosen said. “We’re innovating, and we want to take full advantage. But we aren’t afraid of competition. It’s good that there are other participants in this market, and it’s good that they’re making progress.”

Day to day, Vosen’s life has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has been for many “Waymonauts,” as the company’s employees call themselves. But the Marin County resident still gets up early and helps take care of his two grade-school-age children. Pre-coronavirus, he split his time between his home office and working at the Googleplex in Mountain View, but since last year, he’s been at home full time.

“There isn’t a typical day,” he said. 

“I meet with groups or with individual team members, assess whether we’re making progress against our goals, and try to be a supportive manager. It’s a talented crew, all they need is the space to collaborate. I don’t think at any point I’ve had a fixed structure. Every day, some new, time-sensitive topic comes up.”

Flexibility, therefore, is key. And the payoff is considerable. By not choosing Big Law, Vosen has fulfilled a desire to participate in something that has outsized prospects to benefit society. But he also gets to labor alongside Waymo’s diverse cast of professional pioneers, trying to change the world but not looking to turn themselves into superstars.

“It’s not always the case that you’re blown away by the talent level of the people you get to work with,” he said. “These are world-class intellects, but in a company culture that’s humble. Ego isn’t driving people.”

He’s right. And if all goes according to Waymo’s ambitious plants, robots will be.

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Matthew DeBord