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Alphabet’s Waymo asks judge to block Uber from using self-driving car secrets

Alphabet’s Waymo asks judge to block Uber from using self-driving car secrets


The case of the stolen self-driving car is heating up

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Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving spinoff from Google, is formally asking a judge to block Uber from operating its autonomous vehicles, according to new documents filed in Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber. The lawsuit, which was filed last month, alleges that Uber stole key elements of its self-driving car technology from Google. Uber has called the accusations “baseless.”

Today in federal court, Waymo filed the sworn testimony of Gary Brown, a forensic security engineer with Google since 2013. Citing logs from Google’s secure network, Brown claims that Anthony Levandowski, a former Google engineer who now runs Uber’s self-driving car program, downloaded 14,000 files from a Google repository that contain design files, schematics, and other confidential information pertaining to its self-driving car project. Levandowski used a laptop provided by Google to download the files, a fact that Brown says made it easy to track.

“we are asking the court step in to protect intellectual property”

“When an employee’s device interacts with a Google service or is active on a Google network, those interactions and activities can be recorded in logs that identify the device (by its unique identifiers) and/or the interaction or activity (for example, downloading files from a secure repository),” Brown testifies. 

Brown says Levandowski downloaded the files, which total 9.7GB of material, including 2GB of LIDAR subdirectories, in December 2015. LIDAR is a laser-guided sensor used to map the 3D environment, a key element in autonomous driving. Levandowski left Google in January 2016 to form Otto, a self-driving truck startup. In August 2016, Otto was acquired by Uber for $680 million. Uber then launched a public test of its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh in September.

Brown also implicates two other engineers in the scheme to steal Waymo’s self-driving secrets: Radu Raduta and Sameer Kshirsagar. Both Raduta and Kshirsagar are alleged to have also downloaded confidential material from Google, including a list of vendors and consultants who specialize in the manufacture in LIDAR, before leaving to join Levandowski at Otto and then Uber.

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions,” a spokesperson for Waymo said. “Given the strong evidence we have, we are asking the court step in to protect intellectual property developed by our engineers over thousands of hours and to prevent any use of that stolen IP.”

A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment until the documents had been filed in court.

Update March 10th, 2017, 2:18PM ET: Waymo has filed additional documents in its lawsuit against Uber, including testimony from Pierre-Yves Droz, a principle hardware engineer at Google who previously co-founded a company called 510 Systems with Levandowski. Droz supplies a lengthy description of Google’s effort to develop proprietary LIDAR technology, as well as details about conversations that could prove troublesome for Levandowski and Uber as they formulate their defense.

“He also told me that he planned to ‘replicate’ this Waymo technology at his new company”

Droz testifies that on January 5th, 2016, he and Levandowski were walking around Google’s Mountain View-based campus, talking about the future. “During this walk, he told me specifically that he wanted his new company to have a long-range LiDAR, which is very useful for self-driving truck applications he was interested in,” Droz says. “He also told me that he planned to ‘replicate’ this Waymo technology at his new company.”

The conversation didn’t surprise him, Droz testified, because he could recall a previous time when Levandowski told him that he had met with Brian McClendon, the former of head of Google Maps who now helped run Uber’s self-driving car project, in the summer of 2015. “We were having dinner at a restaurant near the office, and he told me that it would be nice to create a new self-driving car startup and that Uber would be interested in buying the team responsible for the LiDAR we were developing at Google,” Droz said according to court documents. 

He also reports that a colleague told him that Levandowski was spotted at Uber’s headquarters sometime in January 2016, shortly before he left to form Otto. “I asked Mr. Levandowski about this, and he admitted he had met with Uber, and the reason he was there was that he was looking for investors for his new company,” Droz testifies. 

If Waymo can prove that Uber knew Levandowski had stolen intellectual property from Waymo before agreeing to acquire his company Otto for $680 million, the result could be devastating.

“If Waymo prevails after a long suit and a sequence of appeals, the nature of the compensation and fines could be staggering,” Raj Rajkumar, professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told The Verge.  “If Waymo can show that Uber knew that Otto [would] have Waymo’s LIDAR designs, I don't see how Uber can attract additional large institutional investors.”

Update March 10th, 2017, 4:34PM ET: A spokesperson for Uber said the company was reviewing the new motions. Meanwhile, she referred back to Uber’s previous statement calling the lawsuit “baseless.”