Commentary

Alphabet's Waymo Says Uber Stole Self-Driving Trade Secrets

Claiming that an engineer now employed by Uber downloaded 9.7 gigabytes of “highly confidential” files six weeks before departing its employ, Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo, is suing Uber for allegedly misappropriating its trade secrets.

“In a federal court filing in San Francisco, Waymo said Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber's autonomous car division, downloaded 14,000 files … before leaving to start his own self-driving car company, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August for $680 million, about seven months after Mr. Levandowski left Google,” Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac report for the New York Times.

“Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology,” the company says in the filing. “Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense.”

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In a blog post on Medium, the “Waymo Team” writes: “Competition in the self-driving space is a good thing; it pushes everyone to develop better, safer and more affordable technology. But we believe that competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions.” 

“The dispute highlights the high stakes in the race to build self-driving cars that promise not only to revolutionize the way people get around but also the automobile industry. Waymo and Uber are two of the early leaders, while long-established car companies such as Ford, Toyota and General Motors are scrambling to catch up,” observes the AP’s Michael Liedtke.

“Waymo's lawsuit also will escalate the tensions between Google and Uber, two one-time allies that are morphing into rivals. Google invested $258 million in Uber, but its mapping subsidiary Waze is now expanding a carpooling service that could lure riders away from Uber,” Liedtke continues.

“Waymo's suit specifically calls out trade secrets related to ‘lidar’ technology, laser arrays used in self-driving car research to detect objects in a car's environment. Waymo said it learned of the alleged theft after a vendor accidentally emailed a Waymo employee, with an attached diagram of an Uber lidar circuit board,” Wayne Cunningham and Richard Nieva report for CNET.

“This circuit board bears a striking resemblance to Waymo's own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets,” according to the lawsuit.

In an interview with Forbes’  staff in October, Levandowski “went out of his way to say that his current project was not built on the intellectual property of anything he had worked on at Google,” Ryan Mac, Brian Solomon and Alan Ohnsman report.

“We did not steal any Google IP,” he said at the time. “Just want to make sure, super clear on that. We built everything from scratch and we have all of the logs to make that — just to be super clear.”

When asked how Otto/Uber could put together its own self-driving technology in less than a year, he told Forbes it was his fourth time around the track. 

“We understand what not to do and we’re not to waste time, because we have experience from having tried it before and it didn’t work. And we have experience trying things that do work, so we’re just doing the things that do work, and focus on that,” Levandowski said.

He was not as effusive yesterday — in fact, he did not return Forbes’ reporters calls or emails requesting comment.

“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” Uber replied in an email sent to several media outlets.

“The case might only be the beginning of Uber’s struggles,” Alex Davies writes in Wired.

“I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a full criminal investigation behind this,” Chris Swecker, a former assistant FBI director and now an attorney specializing in corporate espionage and cybercrime, tells Davies.

The San Francisco Chronicle’sDavid R. Baker and Carolyn Said point out that the lawsuit comes “just weeks after Tesla sued the former head of its own autonomous-car research uniton similar accusations involving another startup.”

It also comes in a week in which Uber has been embroiled in controversy following a former software engineer’s accusations of sexual harassment in a blog post that went viral. Susan Fowler’s post “detailed a yearlong pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination that she says was met with indifference and even a blaming-the-victim response by the company's human resources department,” Rex Huppke reports for the Chicago Tribune

Earlier this week Uber “hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the claims and promised to make changes to its human resources department to better handle complaints of sexism and harassment,” Tim Higgins and Jack Nicas report in the Wall Street Journal.

Following interviews with more than 30 people, the New York Times’ Mike Isaac concludes: “The focus on pushing for the best result has also fueled what current and former Uber employees describe as a Hobbesian environment at the company, in which workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.”

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