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Google is suing Uber for allegedly stealing a key self-driving car technology

North American International Auto Show Features Latest Car Models
Waymo CEO John Krafcik with a prototype self-driving car in January.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Google just filed a lawsuit against Uber that will have huge implications for the future of self-driving car technology.

Google has been working on self-driving cars since 2009, and for a long time the company practically had the field to itself. But in the past couple of years, the market has gotten a lot more crowded.

One of the newcomers was Otto, founded by Google veterans in January 2016 to create technology for self-driving trucks. By August, the company had developed its own self-driving technology and had sold itself to Uber, expected to be one of Google’s major self-driving car competitors, for an eye-popping $680 million.

If Otto had developed self-driving technology from scratch in less than a year, that would have been a remarkable technological feat. But in a new lawsuit, Google’s self-driving car division, recently renamed Waymo, charges that the Otto team directly copied technical details of Waymo’s technology, likely violating Waymo’s intellectual property rights in the process.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Uber. Last summer, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick admitted that self-driving technology was an existential threat to the company. “We've got to do some catch-up,” he said.

At the same time, Uber’s industry-leading ride-hailing network is likely to make it one of the most formidable threats to Waymo ambitions in the self-driving car market. So it was almost inevitable that these two technology giants would eventually face off against each other in the marketplace. Now Waymo has an opportunity to hobble its would-be competitor in the courts before either company even reaches the market.

Waymo says a former employee stole the designs for a key technology

In a Thursday post on the company blog, Waymo describes how it discovered that Otto may have stolen Waymo’s technology. “One of our suppliers specializing in lidar components sent us an attachment (apparently inadvertently) of machine drawings of what was purported to be Uber’s lidar circuit board ,“ Waymo writes. The plans bore striking similarities to Waymo’s own design.

Waymo says it then conducted a forensic analysis of former employees’ hard drives and discovered that one of Otto’s co-founders, Anthony Levandowski, had downloaded 9.7 gigabytes of confidential Waymo data to an external hard drive before he left the company. Included with this data were the design files for Waymo’s proprietary lidar system.

Lidar is a powerful sensor that has emerged as a key component in self-driving car technology. It uses a sequence of laser pulses to build a 3D, 360-degree map of the environment around a vehicle. Lidar technology is commercially available, but Waymo says it has developed its own advanced version that is less expensive and better suited to self-driving applications than off-the-shelf technology.

For example, Waymo says that though commercially available lidar systems use separate lenses for sending out laser signals and receiving a return signal, it figured out how to use the same lens for both. Not only does that reduce the number of components in Waymo’s lidar, it also greatly simplifies manufacturing because it eliminates the need for each pair of lenses to be painstakingly aligned.

Waymo charges that Otto not only copied Waymo’s lidar technology for its own self-driving truck technology but also passed along the design to Uber’s year-old effort to build self-driving cars, an effort Waymo characterized in its lawsuit as floundering. Indeed, Waymo says that Levandowski met with Uber executives on January 14, 2016, two weeks before he resigned from Waymo and before he officially launched Otto.

California is unusual for its refusal to enforce noncompete laws, and as I wrote earlier this month, this quirk of California law may explain Silicon Valley’s unusual entrepreneurial culture. This means that if Otto’s co-founders had contented themselves with using the information they carried in their heads — re-implementing key Waymo technologies from scratch using knowledge they developed while at Waymo — they likely would have been on safe legal ground.

But the law is less forgiving when an employee takes detailed technical plans to precisely replicate a former employee’s technology. Waymo is suing Uber for violating trade secret laws, and those laws are absolutely enforceable in California.

On top of that, Waymo has patented several key aspects of its lidar design, and it charges Uber with infringing those patents.

I’ve emailed Uber for comment and will update if I get a response.