Driverless Cars

Google Is Suing Uber For Stealing Its Self-Driving Secrets

A blockbuster lawsuit claims a former employee stole Google's technology and gave it to a desperate Uber

Driverless Cars
Feb 24, 2017 at 3:09 PM ET

Uber’s Otto program — the self-driving trucks last seen flouting California’s autonomous vehicle rules by taking to its roads without permits — may have stolen Google’s self-driving car program’s secrets, according to a company blog post and lawsuit.

Waymo was created by Google (now under its parent company, Alphabet) in 2009 to try to create a self-driving car. In the post, it touts its “custom-built LiDAR” (Light Detection and Ranging) system as a big part of accomplishing that mission: a product of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of research. But now Waymo believes that technology was stolen by one of its former employees, who then went on to form his own self-driving vehicle company with its own LiDAR — Otto — which was then acquired by Uber. While it took Waymo years to develop its LiDAR, Otto was notable when it debuted in 2016 for having that system already in place in a very short amount of time. It seems it may have had some illegal help in accomplishing this.

Waymo says it found out about all of this by accident, when a supplier “apparently inadvertently” emailed an employee an attachment that showed one of Uber’s LiDAR circuit boards. It looked a whole lot like Waymo’s. But Waymo probably wasn’t surprised to see this, as it claims it had already discovered that Otto’s co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, along with other, unnamed, former Waymo employees who now work at Uber, downloaded thousands of confidential files relating to Waymo’s technology. Levandowski, Waymo says, “installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop” to access some of those files, and then put them on an external drive before wiping the laptop to destroy the evidence. While Levandowski was clever enough to access and take those files without Waymo’s knowledge, it seems that he was not clever enough to totally cover his tracks.

With the accidental email, Waymo says it had confirmation that Levandowski was actually using the stolen trade secrets, and in direct competition with his former employers. And then, in February, Waymo filed a public records request in Nevada for Otto’s submissions to the state’s regulatory authorities. Those submissions showed that Otto said it had its own LiDAR system, described as being very similar to Waymo’s. Alas, Uber, which routinely resists state efforts to regulate or get any kind of data about its business, might be done in by the little information it provided to the public after all.

Otto was acquired by Uber for $680 million in August 2016, “shortly after,” the lawsuit says, “Levandowski received his final multi-million dollar compensation payment from Google.” As for Uber, the lawsuit claims that its attempt to build self-driving cars and create its own LiDAR system — which it thought was necessary for the survival of the company — was going nowhere, so it bought Otto to get it. And it may have been planning this all along, as Waymo believes Levandowski was having meetings with Uber two weeks before he suddenly resigned from the company.

Waymo is now suing Uber and Otto for stealing its trade secrets and patent infringement, and wants an injunction preventing the companies from using the LiDAR in question as well as all kinds of damages and legal fees.

“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” Uber said in a statement. The company has a lot of matters to take seriously and review carefully these days; along with an investigation into a former engineer’s viral complaints that the company treated women poorly, Uber is still reeling from a boycott after it was perceived as breaking a strike organized by taxi drivers who were protesting Trump’s travel ban.