Google takes Uber to court over self-driving car tech

February 5, 2018

Google's self-driving car division Waymo will see ride-sharing firm Uber in court in San Francisco Monday. The showdown could determine which company will drive the future of autonomous cars.

Waymo alleges that Uber stole trade secrets for the lidar technology that is essential to preventing self-driving cars from bumping into one another—or pedestrians, buildings, or animals. Self-driving cars make use of lidar—light detection and ranging—technology used in the roof- and bumper-mounted cameras key to an autonomous future.

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The battle comes down to robotics engineer Anthony Levandowski, who was trained by Google but abruptly left the company to start his own self-driving truck manufacturer, Otto. Just a few months later, Uber paid $700 million for Otto.

Google's Waymo says that the ride-share firm bought a path to its technology rather than a truck builder.

In the U.S. district court in San Francisco this week, Waymo's lawyers are expected to argue that Levandowski provided Uber with about 14,000 critical documents containing eight lidar trade secrets that helped it develop its own self-driving car tech. Because of the secret nature of the documents set to be presented in court, at points in the testimony everyone other than lawyers, the jury, and Judge William Alsup will be asked to leave the courtroom.

Among the high-profile executives set to be called to the stand today are the Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his Waymo counterpart, John Krafcik, who previously headed up Hyundai's North American operations.

What's at stake could have major long-term implications in the race toward a driver-less car future. Already, it has forced the ouster of Uber CEO Kalanick over his questionable business practices. If Google prevails, Uber could lose access to advanced lidar technology, which would put a squeeze on its transition away from ride-sharing toward self-driving cars.

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