Uber calls claims it stole self-driving technology demonstrably false
Uber has begun to mount its defense against allegations that the ride-hailing company is using technology stolen from Waymo, the self-driving car company spun out of Google.
Uber claimed in a federal court filing Friday that it began developing its own self-driving technology in 2015, before it acquired Otto, a self-driving trucking startup founded by several former Google employees.
The filing, which opposes a Waymo motion for a preliminary injunction against Uber, contains Uber’s most detailed defense to date since Waymo accused it of the “calculated theft” of its LiDAR technology in February.
“Both of [Waymo’s] central premises – that former Waymo employees brought thousands of confidential Waymo documents to Uber to build a copycat LiDAR and that Uber’s LiDAR closely mimics Waymo’s single-lens design – are demonstrably false,” the filing states. “A cursory inspection of Uber’s LiDAR and Waymo’s allegations fall like a house of cards.”
Waymo’s lawsuit centers around LiDAR – the system of lasers that autonomous vehicles use to “see” the world – and the actions of Anthony Levandowski, a longtime Google engineer and pioneer in the field of self-driving cars.
Levandowski left Google in 2016 to found Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber. Levandowski was then named the head of Uber’s self-driving car program.
Waymo alleged that Levandowski downloaded about 14,000 documents from Waymo’s secure server before he left the company, and that he was already in secret talks with Uber prior to his departure and founding of Otto. Waymo said that its suspicion that Levandowski and other former employees had taken secrets about its LiDAR system were confirmed in December when a third-party vendor mistakenly emailed Waymo designs for a LiDAR circuit board being used by Uber.
Waymo sought an injunction requiring the return of its documents and a halt to Uber’s use of the allegedly stolen technology – a move that could fatally handicap Uber in the heated race to commercialize self-driving vehicles.
Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has frequently called self-driving technology “existential” to his $70bn business. In its filing Friday, Uber said that granting the injunction would, among other things, “impede Uber’s efforts to remain a viable business”.
Uber has not provided a rebuttal to the allegations that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files. The company has been hampered there by Levandowski’s assertion of the fifth amendment. At a hearing in March, Levandowski’s lawyers explained that he was invoking his right against self-incrimination because of the “potential for criminal action”.
Levandowski’s invocation of that right has led to complicated and, at times, heated arguments in court, with his attorneys arguing that even providing a list of privileged documents to Waymo could violate his rights.
During a hearing on Thursday, Uber’s attorney Arturo Gonzalez said that the engineer was “not someone who has to steal anything”, adding, “He knows his stuff.”
“Then why did he take the 14,000 documents?” Judge William Alsup retorted.
In its filing, Uber claimed that it had “never had possession of or used any of Waymo’s trade secrets or the 14,000 documents”. The company described the development of its own LiDAR system, which it said was substantially different from that of Waymo.
Uber’s LiDAR, the company said, used four lenses, while Waymo’s used one, a fundamental difference that Uber suggests proves that the device is not based on misappropriated secrets.
“Uber’s assertion that they’ve never touched the 14,000 stolen files is disingenuous at best, given their refusal to look in the most obvious place: the computers and devices owned by the head of their self-driving program,” a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re asking the court to step in based on clear evidence that Uber is using, or plans to use, our trade secrets to develop their LiDAR technology, as seen in both circuit board blueprints and filings in the State of Nevada.”
Alsup will rule on the motion after a hearing scheduled for 3 May.