Good news for Uber's self-driving cars, bad news for Uber itself

May 5, 2017

Given the endless series of dumpster fires that have engulfed Uber since late last year, this week wasn't so bad. 

Of course, that's not saying much. And in fact, two of the week's major headlines suggest that Uber could face far worse trials in the near future. Here's a quick good news/bad news breakdown.

Good news: Uber's self-driving cars remain on the road 

Uber surprised everyone back in August when the company announced that it was launching a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A few months later, Uber did the same thing in California, but the state DMV quickly ran the pilot program off the road. Given the stats on Uber's autonomous vehicle software and an accident that involved one of Ubers self-driving vehicles in Arizona, some folks were happy to see the DMV slow Uber's roll.

A couple of months later--around the same time that Uber went to California, hat in hand, and asked for permission to re-launch its pilot program--Uber was slapped with a massive lawsuit from Waymo, the company once known as Google's self-driving car project.

Waymo alleged that one of its former employees, Anthony Levandowski, stole "9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation". After leaving Waymo, Levandowski immediately launched a start-up devoted to autonomous big-rigs, which was acquired by Uber a few months later. He was retained by Uber and made a lead engineer for the company's self-driving car program. According to the lawsuit, Levandowski and Uber used Waymo's stolen trade secrets in their own self-driving vehicles.

While Uber has consistently denied Waymo's charges, it's gotten no back-up from Levandowski, who's refused to testify in order to avoid incriminating himself. And one Uber employee who took part in a deposition said that Uber's claims of innocence aren't exactly accurate.  

So, how is any of this good news for Uber?

On Wednesday, a hearing was held in a federal court in San Francisco. And while no one disputed the fact that Levandowski had, in fact, stolen about 14,000 documents from Waymo before leaving the company in January 2016, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wasn't convinced that Uber had made use of any trade secrets contained in those documents.

Alsup even chastised Waymo's attorneys, noting that despite having ample time to find proof of Uber's wrongdoing, they hadn't managed to produce "a smoking gun". As a result, he declined to shut down Uber's self-driving car program--something he'd threatened to do in the past.

Alsup was also unswayed by Waymo's suggestion that Levandowski had been in cahoots with Uber since departing Waymo in early 2016. Waymo's lawyers had uncovered documents suggesting that Uber promised to give Levandowski over $250 million in stock that January. Uber responded that the offer was actually from August 2016, several months later, when Uber bought Levandowski's start-up self-driving trucking company, Otto. Either way, Judge Alsup said that the offer didn't prove that Levandowski was sharing trade secrets with Uber. 

That said, this was merely a hearing, not a full trial, which means that Waymo could dig up more evidence in the future. Waymo argued that some of that evidence likely resides in Uber documents that the company is wrongfully withholding. Judge Alsup hasn't decided whether or not to force Uber to share those documents with Waymo lawyers. 

Bad news: Uber's is being investigated by the Department of Justice 

Remember Greyball, the shady software that Uber used to help drivers dodge regulators in cities where Uber wasn't yet approved? The company stopped using the software in March, but that wasn't good enough for federal investigators.  

And so, the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating Uber for criminal wrongdoing. Coincidentally, officials in Portland, Oregon recently announced that Uber used Greyball repeatedly in 2014, before the company was given the green light to operate within city limits.

Neither Uber nor the DOJ have commented on the investigation. However, a grand jury in northern California has subpoenaed Uber for information about how Greyball worked and how it was employed. While that indicates that a criminal investigation is underway, it doesn't necessarily mean that Uber will be formally charged with wrongdoing. If it is, though--and if evidence from Portland and other cities holds up in court--Uber could be in trouble.


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