Waymo Paints Uber’s Kalanick as a Cheat During Trial’s First Day

Uber chose cheating over innovation to catch up in a breakneck race toward self-driving cars, lawyers for rival Waymo charged Monday in opening arguments for its trade-secrets lawsuit against the ride-hailing giant.

The company that grew out of Google’s autonomous car project fingered Uber founder Travis Kalanick as the prime culprit in the alleged theft of 14,000 confidential Google documents by former star engineer Anthony Levandowski, whom both sides called a key figure in the development of Lidar technology for automotive vision.

Kalanick “made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” said Waymo’s lead attorney, Charles Verhoeven of the firm Quinn Emmanuel. He compared the former Uber CEO to a marathon runner who secretly takes the subway.

Uber, for its part, charged that Waymo was the company falling behind and that it sued Uber to stall its biggest rival. Levandowski brought nothing to Uber that wasn’t commonly known among Lidar engineers, attorney Bill Carmody of Susman Godfrey said in Uber’s opening argument.

The jury trial before Judge William Alsup of the US District Court in San Francisco has put self-driving technology in the spotlight and Silicon Valley culture under the microscope. The opening arguments drew one of the biggest media throngs of any tech trial in recent memory, partly because Uber and Alphabet, the parent company of Google and Waymo, are among the most closely watched in the tech world.

Even before the jury was seated on February 5, Alsup made it clear tech-star privilege would have no place in his court. One witness who had requested a private room at the courthouse wasn’t going to get it, he said. “You’re going to have to be just like the rest of us,” Alsup said.

The eight alleged secrets at issue in the case involve Lidar, the system most self-driving cars use to sense their surroundings by constantly bouncing laser beams off of objects.

“We paint the world with these beams of light and figure out where things are very precisely,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said on the witness stand Monday.

Levandowski led Google’s development of Lidar until he resigned in late January 2016 for autonomous trucking startup Otto, which was founded a few days later. Otto publicly launched in May 2016 and was acquired by Uber in August, but Waymo charged that Levandowski was frequently in contact with Uber before Otto had even taken shape.

The plan all along was for Uber to “acqui-hire” Levandowski and other top Google engineers for their expertise and trade secrets they knew, Waymo’s Verhoeven said, citing Uber meeting notes and other documents. The code name for this project? A dollar sign.

As part of the deal, Uber agreed to indemnify Levandowski and other top hires against allegations of intellectual property theft, Verhoeven said.

Krafcik, the first witness to take the stand, recalled taking over Google’s car project in September 2015 and trying to get to know Levandowski better. “He was an interesting character,” said Krafcik, a longtime automotive engineer and executive.

The two had different ideas about safety, with Levandowski opposed to Krafcik’s insistence on including backup steering and braking systems in its self-driving vehicles, he said. But Levandowski’s resignation the following January came as a surprise, Krafcik said.

“He had gone from someone I had considered a friend to someone I considered an enemy,” he said.

Uber argued it took extraordinary measures to ensure it hadn’t acquired any trade secrets after it acquired Otto. A forensics firm interviewed the new employees and examined the data on their personal devices, Carmody said. Waymo itself came to Uber 11 times to check its servers for proprietary information, he said.

What Waymo calls secrets are common Lidar knowledge that Google had considered posting publicly, Uber said. The company came by its core technology legitimately by hiring a team of engineers from Carnegie-Mellon University and other elsewhere.

“The tech here tells the truth,” Carmody said. “What’s in here comes from people at Uber who bring to bear their engineering talents.”

The trial is expected to continue for about three weeks. Kalanick and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are among the possible witnesses.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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