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Alphabet’s Waymo is suing Otto and Uber for allegedly stealing the design of a key self-driving system

The Alphabet subsidiary is accusing its former employee, Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, of downloading 14,000 confidential files before he left the company.

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Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car unit, is suing Otto — the self-driving trucking company co-founded by former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski and quickly acquired by Uber — for allegedly stealing the company’s proprietary design for its laser-based radar system.

According to Waymo, before Levandowski left what was then a part of Google’s moonshot labs, he downloaded 14,000 “highly confidential” files to an external hard drive, including the design for the company’s lidar circuit board.

The company decided to perform a forensic investigation of Levandowski’s former company computer after a Waymo employee was inadvertently copied on an email from a lidar supplier with the subject line “Otto Files.” The email was being sent to a list of people that Waymo believes were working with Uber. Attached to the email were drawings of Otto’s lidar circuit board.

It looked just like Waymo’s design, the company alleged in the suit filed today, “the design of which had been downloaded by Mr. Levandowski before his resignation.”

“The Replicated Board reflects Waymo’s highly confidential proprietary LiDAR technology and Waymo trade secrets,” the complaint reads. “Moreover, the Replicated Board is specifically designed to be used in conjunction with many other Waymo trade secrets and in the context of overall LiDAR systems covered by Waymo patents.”

To then verify its suspicions, Waymo filed a public records request to the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Department of Motor Vehicles in February for Otto’s communications with the departments.

In that correspondence, Otto indicated that the company was using custom lidar that it built in-house. Waymo cites this as evidence that Uber and Otto are using a circuit board that “bears a striking resemblance” to Waymo’s.

Save for Elon Musk, lidars are seen by most as a crucial piece of self-driving technology. The radar shoots lasers at objects in order to detect them and works closely with the cameras and normal radars to create a thorough image of the car’s surroundings.

Waymo is suing and seeking damages from Otto and its owner, Uber, for allegedly stealing trade secrets, unfair competition and patent infringement.

Update: Uber says the lawsuit is a “baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”

“We are incredibly proud of the progress that our team has made,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “We have reviewed Waymo's claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court. In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

This is not the first instance of an established company taking legal action against a startup founded by some of its former employees. In January, Tesla sued its former director of Autopilot — the company’s autonomous software — for poaching employees to go to the company he and the ex-CTO of Google’s self-driving project Chris Urmson have started.

It is, however, the first time Waymo has taken public legal action against any of its defectors.

The self-driving industry is increasingly competitive as more new players, such as Otto, are entering the field with seasoned engineers at the helm. Earlier this month, a former Waymo engineer, Brian Salesky, joined a former Uber self-driving engineer, Peter Rander, to create, which was quickly scooped up by Ford. Then there’s Urmson’s new endeavor, called Aurora.

So there’s no shortage of new and existing competition, making things like talent retention and proprietary technology particularly important. But that’s doubly so for Waymo, which, unlike competitors, is building both its own hardware and software and may eventually sell that to automakers and other players.

To further complicate this, Uber and Google’s once productive relationship has soured in the past few years. Many industry experts saw an opportunity for the two companies to work together on a ride-hail network of self-driving cars. (Google Ventures also invested in Uber in 2013, in its biggest deal yet.) But instead, Uber decided to develop autonomous technology on its own, effectively becoming a Google competitor.

Days after Uber acquired Otto, Google’s head of corporate development and chief legal officer, David Drummond, stepped down from Uber’s board of directors.

According to the complaint, Levandowski wasn’t the only former Waymo employee downloading files before defecting. Though the company doesn’t name names in the filing, it says a number of others who joined Levandowski downloaded things like “supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information” in the days and hours before they left the company.

The suit further alleges that Levandowski set up a new company called 280 Systems before he left Alphabet in January 2016. Otto then launched publicly in February of that year and was acquired by Uber in August 2016.

“While Waymo developed its custom LiDAR systems with sustained effort over many years, Defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable LiDAR system in only nine months,” the complaint alleges. “As of August 2016, Uber had no in-house solution for LiDAR — despite 18 months with their faltering Carnegie Mellon University effort — and they acquired Otto to get it.”

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment and will update when we hear back.

If you have any additional information you can contact this reporter at or on Signal, Confide or Telegram at 5162338877.

Update: This post was updated to include comment from Uber.

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