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Judge Says Waymo Self-Driving Car Tech May Have "Seeped" Into Uber's Designs

The court gave Uber a deadline of May 31.

Originally posted on
Updated on

A federal judge has ordered Uber to return any driverless car documents its employees allegedly stolen from Google's Waymo by May 31 as part of a bitter trade secrets lawsuit between the two tech giants, according to an order unsealed by the court Monday morning. US District Judge William Alsup also barred a key engineer from working on a portion of Uber's self-driving car program.

Waymo had requested an injunction to halt or limit Uber's self-driving program pending a trial. It alleged that Anthony Levandowski – the ex-Google engineer who now works at Uber and is at the center of the lawsuit – downloaded files before leaving Alphabet's autonomous vehicle unit, and that those trade secrets are now being used at Uber. The court order on Monday requires Uber to produce a comprehensive log of all communications that Levandowski had about LiDAR, the technology at issue in the case. LiDAR refers to “light detection and ranging” systems; It uses rapid pulses of laser light to help self-driving cars measure distance and navigate the world around them.

"As far as the record shows, Levandowski remains in possession of over 14,000
confidential files from Waymo, at least some of which likely contain Waymo’s trade secrets," Alsup wrote in the court order. "Misuse of that treasure trove remains an ever-present danger wholly at his whim."

On April 27, Uber preempted an injunction decision by moving Levandowski out of a leadership position in its self-driving program and into a lesser role. (Waymo had requested that the judge bar Uber from using its trade secrets and prevent Levandowski from working on the self-driving project entirely.) The order stopped short of halting Uber's self-driving research or pilot programs. Uber's self-driving cars on the road now use LiDAR technology developed by the company Velodyne, rather than a system developed by the ride-hail giant in-house.

"Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions," a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement. "We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr Levandowski from working on the technology. The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct.”

The court order also grants Waymo seven more depositions, and the ability to inspect its competitor Uber's ongoing LiDAR work, including designs and code.

"We are pleased with the court's ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LiDAR," an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. "We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up."

On Thursday, Alsup asked federal prosecutors to investigate Uber's self-driving program for potential theft of trade secrets.

Uber has said its own technology is “fundamentally different” from Waymo’s designs. But Waymo insists that Uber’s work has been informed by its own trade secrets.

Uber's self-driving program got off the ground in February 2015, after the company poached dozens of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's robotics unit. It has since lost many of those engineers to newer upstarts, including Aurora Innovation (started by the former leaders of Google and Tesla's respective self-driving programs) and Argo AI, which is backed by Ford.

Uber has since launched pilot programs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Arizona and San Francisco. While the ride-hail behemoth's program is still in its early stages – in March, some of its cars in Arizona still needed human intervention about once per mile, according to internal metrics obtained by BuzzFeed –it has made a very public splash.

Google's spinoff Waymo, on the other hand, began working on self-driving technology in 2009 and just launched a public pilot program in Phoenix, Arizona in April to chauffeur people around on a daily basis in its own cars. (The company has also invited many people over the years to ride in its vehicles, but this is its first pilot of this kind.)

At a court hearing last week about Waymo's request for an injunction against Uber, Alsup told Waymo it had one of the strongest bodies of evidence he had seen in his career, but suggested that the company hadn't yet convinced him that Uber had benefitted from information allegedly stolen from it.

“All that has been proven is he downloaded 14,000 files. I’ve given you lots of discovery and so far you don’t have a smoking gun,” Alsup said.

In the order unsealed Monday, Alsup appeared to be more convinced.

"The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo’s intellectual property; that at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber’s own LiDAR development efforts," he wrote.

Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Priya Anand at priya.anand@buzzfeed.com.

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