Uber fires former Waymo engineer, but can it stay in the self-driving car race?

May 31, 2017

It's been nearly three weeks since the messy legal battle between ride-sharing giant Uber and self-driving car company Waymo made headlines, but rest assured, all is not quiet on the West Coast front.

Yesterday, Uber finally fired the engineer at the center of the contentious court case, Anthony Levandowski. Will that ease tensions between Uber and Waymo?

Eh, probably not.

That's because Levandowski remains a key figure in the lawsuit. As you might recall, he allegedly stole 9.7 gigabytes worth of trade secrets from Waymo (then known as Google's self-driving car project) before quitting his job and launching Otto, an autonomous trucking company that was acquired by Uber eight months later. The suit filed by Waymo alleges that Levandowski then shared the stolen data with Uber to help the company develop its burgeoning fleet of self-driving cars.

Complicating matters is the fact that Levandowski has refused to testify in the case, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, which protect him from self-incrimination. That's been a frustration for Waymo, which wants its former employee to discuss his actions in court.

It's been exponentially more vexing for Uber, which wants Levandowski to help prove the company's innocence. Among other things, Uber would like to hear Levandowski tell the court that he didn't use trade secrets contained in Waymo's (allegedly) stolen documents to design any of Uber's self-driving vehicles.

(Interestingly, Uber hasn't denied assertions that Levandowski took 14,000 documents from Waymo, only that he didn't take them at Uber's request, nor did he share them with Uber.)

As a matter of propriety during the pending suit, Levandowski minimized his participation in Uber's self-driving car program last month. Unfortunately for Levandowski, that wasn't enough to show that Uber was acting in good faith. Firing him was Uber's next option. 

So, what now?

In all likelihood, Levandowski's departure from Uber won't have much of an effect on the ongoing court case. He'll almost certainly remain at the center of the legal drama.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge William Alsup referred the case to federal prosecutors, creating a criminal investigation. Levandowski's actions before and during his tenure at Uber will be a key part of that probe, regardless of the fact that he's been kicked to the curb. 

Furthermore, if prosecutors prove that Levandowski stole documents from Waymo--something that appears increasingly likely--then there's the question of whether the trade secrets in those documents were used at Uber. If they were, did Levandowski do so without Uber's knowledge? Or did Uber conspire with Levandowski to steal Waymo's secrets in the service of Uber's autonomous car fleet?

Headlines about the case may be fewer and farther between now that Levandowski's partially out of the way. Be patient, though: they're coming.

The suit is expected to go to trial in October.

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