The Waymo/Google vs. Uber/Otto battle is getting uglier (and way more complicated)

April 24, 2017

Not so long ago, someone might've looked at that headline and thought we'd lost our minds, or at least fallen asleep on the keyboard. These days, though, we're all too familiar with what each of those words means and what's at stake as two of the biggest players in the field of self-driving cars go head-to-head in the courtroom. 

That courtroom drama got a little more dramatic last week, when Waymo claimed that Uber has been using its proprietary technology in secret.

Ryan Murphy, if you're reading this, please consider tackling this fiasco for your next season of Feud.

A quick recap

In February, Google and its recently spun-off self-driving car subsidiary, Waymo, sued autonomous trucking company Otto and its parent company, Uber. They alleged that former Googler Anthony Levandowski stole a huge number of trade secrets before leaving Google, then began using those secrets Otto and, after the company was bought out, at Uber.

Last we heard, Waymo and Google had a pretty convincing case. As stated in the court documents: 

"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."

As the kids say these days: daaaaaaamn.

Oh, and just to make things really interesting, Levandowski has refused to testify in the Waymo/Google/Uber/Otto case. He's cited his Fifth Amendment rights, which prevent people from incriminating themselves in court. 

Given the weight of Waymo's claims and Levandowski's reluctance to speak on behalf of his current employer, U.S. District Judge William Alsup has threatened to force Uber's self-driving car programs off the roads of Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Tempe until the matter is formally resolved. However Uber has countered that Waymo's claims are irrelevant because Uber isn't using any of the technology that Levandowski allegedly stole. 

That's not the same as saying that Levandowski didn't steal it, mind you. It's simply stating that Uber is employing other technology. 

So far, Alsup has bought Uber's claim and allowed the company's self-driving car program to continue. 

Is Uber telling the truth?

But of course, this wouldn't be a story about Uber if things were as simple as they seemed. You might want to start taking notes: it gets a little complicated. 

Uber admits that it is developing its own self-driving system, which is code-named Fuji. However, the company also states that:

1. Fuji isn't yet ready for prime-time, so Uber is currently using autonomous car technology developed by Velodyne. 

2. Even when it's complete, Fuji will differ dramatically from Waymo's system. Fuji relies on multi-lens LiDAR, while Waymo's technology makes use of single-lens LiDAR.

In schoolyard lingo, Uber is saying, "Even if we were using Waymo's stuff--which we totally aren't--it wouldn't be Waymo's stuff because it's different." But at least one Uber employee with intimate knowledge of the subject say that that's not entirely true.

On April 13, a deposition was held involving an electrical engineer named Asheem Linaval. Linaval is currently employed by Uber, and before that, he worked for Google and Levandowski. He told lawyers that Fuji isn't the only LiDAR system that Otto/Uber has. There's another system in development that makes use of technology that Levandowski allegedly stole from Waymo/Google. 

That's still not the same as saying that Uber is employing proprietary technology stolen from Waymo/Google in its test fleet of self-driving vehicles. However, if Linaval's testimony is accurate, it would appear that Uber has been working on an autonomous system that's based on trade secrets that Levandowski appears to have taken from his former employer. And that, in turn, suggests that Uber employees may have lied under oath. Not good.

Judge Alsup will hear arguments for a preliminary injunction against Uber/Otto next month. Stay tuned. 

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