Justice Department Letter Charges Uber With Bribery, Hacking

The year 2017 brought hundreds of stories about self-driving cars, nearly all of them positive and encouraging. But one of the biggest AV stories of the year has been a dragged out and ugly one: Waymo’s ongoing lawsuit against Uber.

The case stems from Waymo Co-Founder Anthony Levandowski leaving the company in January 2016. Levandowski left to start the self-driving truck company Otto. Only six months later, Otto was acquired by Uber, which was looking to kick-start its own self-driving efforts.

Waymo’s lawsuit alleges that Levandowski illegally downloaded 14,000 files about the company’s Lidar sensor technology when he left, and brought that information to Otto and then to Uber.

In November, the proceedings took a turn that could prove to be a serious blow to Uber. The US Justice Department notified Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the Waymo-Uber lawsuit, of a letter written by the attorney of former Uber Security Analyst Richard Jacobs. In the letter, Jacobs lays out a series of disturbing business practices that allegedly took place at Uber.

The letter was originally sent to Uber this past spring but was not presented during the lawsuit’s discovery process, meaning jurors could be told that Uber withheld evidence in the case.

“Uber improperly withheld the Jacobs Letter, which exposes the extreme lengths it was willing to go both to get a leg up on competition and hide evidence of bad acts,” a Waymo spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Separate and apart from the letter, Waymo has accumulated significant evidence that Uber is using stolen Waymo trade secrets, including copying aspects of Waymo’s Lidar designs down to the micron, and we look forward to trial.”

While it remains to be seen how the alleged mishandling of Jacobs’s letter will affect Uber in the trial, it’s wholly possible that the contents of the letter will have far greater ramifications outside of the trial.

What Jacobs describes sounds like a company run by a Hollywood version of a corporate villain. Among other things, Jacobs alleges that Uber performed espionage against foreign countries, bribed foreign government officials, destroyed and falsified records and documents, spied on competing companies, and stole trade secrets from competitors. That last accusation is exactly the subject of Waymo’s lawsuit.

In a statement regarding Jacobs’s letter, Uber did not exactly make a strong denial.

“While we haven’t substantiated all the claims in this letter — and, importantly, any related to Waymo — our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology,” said a spokesperson.

The letter scandal is a fitting end to a disastrous 2017 for Uber. In February, a controversy in the wake of President Trump’s immigration ban caused over 200,000 customers to delete the Uber app. Various other scandals, including a series of reports about Uber’s toxic and sexist corporate culture, forced CEO Travis Kalanick to resign in June.

As Uber has endured scandal after scandal, it has provided a boost to competitors. It has given a particular lift to Lyft. And given how quickly the automotive world is changing, there’s no telling how far Uber might fall if it loses the Waymo lawsuit.

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