A legal battle between two tech titans may determine who designs tomorrow’s self-driving cars.
Two of the biggest names in self-driving vehicles — indeed, two of the biggest names in technology — are embroiled in a massive lawsuit, and the outcome may reshape the burgeoning industry. As Uber and Alphabet/Google clash in court, we see a burgeoning technology inherit the same problems any new development sees at it struggles for legitimacy. Who owns the tech, who invented the tech, and who can be sued to find out?
Here’s everything you need to know.
Uber gets dodgy, and Google needs more time to deal with it
Earlier in September, Uber got hit with an order from the judge to produce a document that could be a major break in the case, as reported by Recode. It’s a report that Uber commissioned when it was considering the purchase of Otto, the self-driving startup at the center of the case.
More recently, Alphabet asked for a delay of the upcoming October 10 trial to analyze the report that was turned in. Waymo alleges that only part of the document was produced, and that Uber is holding back. Alphabet’s filing also stated that it needed more time to depose Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, among others.
The back story
Waymo — a part of Alphabet, which owns Google — filed suit against Uber back in February, alleging that the ridesharing service stole some of its proprietary autonomous-car tech. Waymo began as Alphabet/Google’s self-driving car project years ago, and was spun off into its own company.
In Waymo v. Uber, the plaintiff claims a former employee named Anthony Levandowski stole proprietary files — 14,000 of them, to be exact — and used them to start a new company. The company in question is Otto, the autonomous-driving tech startup acquired by Uber last August for $680 million. Otto demonstrated a self-driving semi truck late last year.
The lawsuit alleges unfair competition, patent infringement, and trade secret misappropriation. It also claims the allegedly stolen technology earned Otto employees more than $500 million. Waymo asked a federal judge to put an end to its rival’s self-driving car program. Part of the request was granted, though how that will affect Uber is unclear because the motion remains sealed.
Uber has repeatedly denied Waymo’s charges, dubbing them nothing more than “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”
The lawsuit was brought before United States District Judge William Alsup, who referred it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to determine if the government should get involved. He emphasized the case needs to stay in court, and turned down Uber’s request to hire a private arbitrator in order to keep the dirty details of the legal battle out of the public eye.
“The court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up to the U.S. Attorney,” Alsup wrote.
According to the lawsuit, Waymo became aware of the issue when it was inadvertently copied in an email from a supplier that showed an Uber LIDAR circuit board, which bore a “striking resemblance” to one of Waymo’s designs. The complaint accuses Levandowski of downloading the 14,000 files in question in December 2015. That allegedly included the circuit board, part of a sensor that helps autonomous cars “see” their environment.
Levandowski — who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination in connection with the case — left Waymo in January 2016 and formed Otto in May. The lawsuit alleges that, prior to his departure, he created a domain name for his new company, and told other Waymo employees that he planned to “replicate” the company’s technology for a competitor. Creating Otto was a clever way to hide his agreement with Uber from Google executives, according to Waymo’s lawyers; Uber planned on buying the startup before it was even founded, they added.
Levandowski gets his walking papers, Uber continues testing
Levandowski’s dependence on the Fifth Amendment ended up costing him his job, according to The New York Times. Uber confirmed on May 30 it has fired its top self-driving car engineer. The company asked him to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, but he failed to hand over the required documents in time.
This marks the first time that Uber has split publicly with Levandowski; the company has previously made no indication that it would ask the engineer to cooperate with court proceedings. Still, Uber maintains that it’s innocent. “We continue to believe that no Waymo trade secrets have ever been used in the development of our self-driving technology, and we remain confident that we will prove that fact in due course,” the company wrote.
Uber continues to test self-driving cars for use in its ridesharing service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Tempe, Arizona. Cars were moved to the Arizona city after an aborted launch in San Francisco. That operation was shut down when the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) revoked the registrations of Uber’s test vehicles, after the company refused to apply for the correct autonomous-car test permits.
Update: Added information about a key document Uber was ordered to produce, and Alphabet’s request for a delay of the trial.
Published at Sun, 17 Sep 2017 15:50:19 +0000