Clash Of The Autonomous Titans: Alphabet's Waymo Sues Uber Claiming Tech Theft

February 24, 2017

Waymo, the former Google Self-Driving Car project that became a stand-alone Alphabet Inc. unit in December, didn’t have much to say publicly last year when several high-level engineers left and began starting their own automated car companies or joined competitors.

But when it comes to protecting a lead in patented autonomous driving technology built up after more than six years of research, the firm is ready to make a big noise. Waymo on Thursday dropped a bombshell by filing a suit against Uber and its Otto self-driving tech unit in federal court in San Francisco, claiming the ride-hailing giant stole patents and trade secrets.

The Mountain View, California-based company’s claims center on actions by Anthony Levandowski, a long-time member of Google’s driverless car team who left to found Otto in 2016. Uber in August reportedly paid as much as $680 million for the nascent company which focused on designing self-driving systems for commercial trucks. When the deal was announced, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick described Levandowski as “one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers.”

Six weeks before his resignation, Waymo claims that 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,” the company said in a blog post that summarizes actions detailed in the lawsuit and which doesn’t personally name Levandowski as a defendant.

Using a Google-issued laptop, “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,” Waymo said.

Uber, which intends to eventually replace human drivers on its network with low-cost robotic ride services, didn’t have specific responses to Waymo’s claims or the newly filed suit.

“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” the company said in a statement late Thursday. A legal fight between the two complicates a complex relationship that began with early funding for Uber by Google in 2013.

Billions of dollars have been invested in automated driving research in the past two years as auto and technology companies scramble for leadership in this emerging space. Google’s years of well-publicized R&D efforts to perfect driverless cars spurred a host of competitors to enter the fray, and in some cases scoop up its experienced computer scientists and artificial intelligence experts.

Waymo has designed all the hardware and software that goes into its self-driving vehicles and intends to supply a ready-to-go system to automakers. It’s already arranged a small-scale program with FCA Corp.’s Chrysler and is in talks to potentially work with Honda Motor Co. as well.

Along with Levandowski, Chris Urmson, a former head of Google’s vehicle program, left the company last year, and apparently has founded Aurora Innovation, an autonomous vehicle tech firm with Sterling Anderson, who previously led Tesla’s Autopilot team. Tesla in January filed a lawsuit in Santa Clara County, Calif., against Anderson and Urmson claiming, among other things, attempts to poach Tesla employees to work for Aurora.

In February, Ford announced plans to invest as much as $1 billion over five years in Argo AI, a startup co-founded by Bryan Salesky, another former Google Self-Driving Car engineer. In 2016 Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson, also left Google to found Nuro.ai, another would-be Waymo competitor.

In the suit, Tesla said, “Autopilot feature that are built into every Tesla vehicle, and continually updated through free over-the-air updates, are widely regarded as the most advanced, safest, and most reliable technology in the autonomous area.”

In its blog, Waymo said other former employees who are now at Otto and Uber also “downloaded additional highly confidential information pertaining to our custom-built LiDAR including supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information.”

The actions were part of a plan to “steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property. Months before the mass download of files, Mr. Levandowski told colleagues that he had plans to “replicate” Waymo’s technology at a competitor.

Uber began demonstrating its commitment to self-driving vehicles with a test program in Pittsburgh last September, allowing users to hail automated cars — with two technicians in the front — to transport them around the city. A similar program in San Francisco turned into a debacle in December when Levandowski refused to apply for a California permit required to operate self-driving cars on public roads.

Uber pulled the plug on that effort and shipped its automated Volvo SUVs to Arizona, where they started operating this month, according to Otto co-founder Lior Ron.

Waymo’s suit requests a jury trial and it’s seeking an injunction to stop Uber and Otto from using its trade secrets, as well as unspecified damages and legal fees.

“Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly,” Waymo said. “However, given the overwhelming facts that our technology has been stolen, we have no choice but to defend our investment and development of this unique technology.”(Forbes) 



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