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Uber accused of ‘calculated theft’ of Google’s self-driving car technology

The Guardian // 25th February 2017
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Uber accused of ‘calculated theft’ of Google’s self-driving car technology” was written by Julia Carrie Wong and Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th February 2017 00.31 UTC

Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, filed a suit against Uber on Thursday alleging that the ride-share company engaged in the “calculated theft” of its self-driving technology.

The suit is the latest setback for Uber, which is still reeling from the viral #DeleteUber campaign and which this week launched an “urgent investigation” into claims of sexual harassment.

The lawsuit, filed in US district court in San Francisco, contains explosive allegations that a former Waymo employee, Anthony Levandowski, plotted to steal Waymo’s technology and trade secrets before leaving to start his own self-driving truck company, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, reportedly for $680m.

At the center of the suit is Waymo’s proprietary LiDAR system – the “eyes” that self-driving cars use to see other vehicles, the road and pedestrians. Waymo says that it spent seven years and significant amounts of money developing its LiDAR – and alleges that Uber’s recent advances in self-driving technology are due to its theft of the Waymo LiDAR design.

“The configuration and specifications of our LiDAR sensors are unique to Waymo,” the company said in a blogpost. “Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.”

“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” an Uber spokesperson said.

Waymo’s complaint suggests that the company has significant evidence of intellectual property theft by Otto.

Levandowski downloaded 9.7 GBs of “sensitive, secret, and valuable internal Waymo information” from the company’s secure design server before leaving the company, including specifications for Waymo’s LiDAR circuit boards, according to the suit. He then attempted to erase his “forensic fingertips” by wiping his company laptop, the suit alleges.

Additionally, the suit claims that Levandowski met with Uber executives in January 2016 – while he still worked for Waymo and one day before he formed the company that became Otto.

Other Waymo employees who left the company to join Otto also downloaded confidential company information before leaving, the suit alleges.

Though Waymo had “grave concern” about Uber’s acquisition of Otto, the company received a surprise on 13 December 2016, when Waymo was apparently inadvertently sent an email from a LiDAR component vendor – apparently intended for Otto.

Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving program, speaks about their driverless cars in San Francisco. An Otto self-driving truck can be seen in the background.
Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving program, speaks about their driverless cars in San Francisco. An Otto self-driving truck can be seen in the background. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

The email included a drawing of Otto’s LiDAR circuit board, which Waymo alleges “bore a striking resemblance to – and shared several unique characteristics” with Waymo’s own secret design.

The suit details the lengths Waymo goes to in order to protect secrets, including purchasing LiDAR components from numerous vendors and completing assembly in-house to prevent any single vendor from knowing everything about the technology.

Waymo discovered further evidence of wrongdoing through a public records request in Nevada, where Otto had submitted documents to regulatory agencies. The documents, which included a description of Otto’s LiDAR system, were “the final piece of the puzzle”, the suit states.

In addition to monetary damages, Waymo is seeking an injunction to recover its intellectual property.

“Defendants’ conduct constitutes transgressions of a continuing nature for which Waymo has no adequate remedy at law,” the suit states.

Mark Terry, an intellectual property lawyer, said that leaving a company with skills and knowledge is permissible, but taking documents is another matter. “If it’s true he did these things it’s pretty egregious.”

“I don’t see how the defendant thought they were going to get away with this, especially today when everything is logged and stored,” Terry said.

Legal disputes over intellectual property are not uncommon in Silicon Valley. In January, Tesla filed suit against the former director of its semiautonomous Autopilot program, alleging that he also stole propriety information before launching his own self-driving startup.

But Waymo’s suit comes amid an avalanche of bad news for Uber, a company whose bad-boy reputation appears to be catching up with it.

In early February, more than 200,000 Uber users reportedly deleted their accounts amid outrage over CEO Travis Kalanick’s ties to Donald Trump and the company’s lackluster opposition to Trump’s travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries.

Then on Sunday, a former Uber engineer wrote a blogpost describing a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. The company has enlisted former attorney general Eric Holder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington to conduct an investigation into the work environment.

In December, the ride-sharing company backed down after a high-profile standoff with California state regulators over its self-driving cars. The company launched a pilot program with its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco without obtaining a permit from the department of motor vehicles.

At the time, Levandowski called the company’s defiance of state regulations “an important issue of principle”. After the state revoked the vehicles’ registrations, Uber conceded defeat and moved the pilot program to Arizona.

Uber has raised more than $11b from investors since its founding, including $258m from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Alphabet. Waymo alluded to the relationship in its blogpost, writing: “Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly.”

Terry suggested that even if Uber is forced to pay a large judgment or settlement to Waymo, the benefit of the information allegedly acquired may have been worth it.

“Their R&D has really jumped forward many steps,” Terry said. “They gained a huge advantage. I would not be surprised if they had done a cost-benefit analysis beforehand.”

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