Waymo sues Uber, claiming former employee stole top-secret technology

February 27, 2017

We live in confusing times. Presenters dole out movie awards to films that didn't win. The last Republican president has been criticizing the current one. And two self-driving car start-ups are embroiled in a court battle over allegations of corporate espionage.

Oh, and to make that last item even more complicated, the brouhaha started because of an email accidentally sent to the wrong person. Not that any of us have been guilty of such flubs, of course.

The two companies in question are Waymo--which, until December, was known colloquially as "Google's self-driving car program"--and Otto, a firm dedicated to self-driving big-rigs that's now owned by Uber. The CliffsNotes version of the lawsuit is that Waymo believes a former employee stole information related to its advanced LiDAR system, then took that information with him when he jumped ship and founded Otto.

The former employee is Anthony Levandowski, who began working on Google's autonomous car project in 2009 and remained there until launching Otto in January 2016. Waymo alleges that shortly before he departed, Levandowski began downloading top-secret files related to the LiDAR system:

"We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop. Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints."

Waymo says that other former employees who now work at Otto and Uber also stole company documents, "including supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information." 

The company also claims to have evidence from people who heard Levandowski mention plans to "replicate" its technology at a competing firm.

Oops

While Waymo had plenty of hunches about Levandowski's activities, the nail in the coffin arrived just a couple of months ago. On December 13, an employee who worked for one of Waymo's suppliers sent a message to Waymo entitled "OTTO FILES", which contained attachments like a diagram of Otto's LiDAR circuit board. The email wasn't supposed to go to Waymo; the supplier's employee simply included a Waymo email address by mistake.

But of course: finders keepers. After reviewing the files, Waymo knew that its instincts were correct: as it tells the story, Otto's LiDAR  design is simply too close to Waymo's to be mere coincidence. 

Uber has yet to issue a formal statement about the lawsuit, but a spokesman has lamented that the case is a distraction that will prevent Uber from focusing more attention on its self-driving automotive technology. 

Our take

This is yet another black eye for Uber--one in a string of recent PR disasters for the company. Even if the case is quietly settled out of court, it's not likely to help Uber improve its very tarnished image.

If, on the other hand, the case goes before a judge, Uber could face fines and penalties with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars. If they're found guilty of stealing trade secrets, Levandowski and other former Waymo employees could also be thrown in prison for up to a decade. Stay tuned.

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