Waymo, Uber Head to Court With Eyes on Autonomy’s Future

The celebrated court battle between autonomous driving hopefuls Waymo and Uber will finally begin on Monday, February 5. After nearly a year of accusations and revelations, a federal jury will hear the opening arguments in a case that could reshape the self-driving car industry.

The trial, under US District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, is expected to last three weeks and might see Uber founder Travis Kalanick, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and other well known Silicon Valley names take the stand.

Waymo’s stark allegations, an apparent criminal probe, and the shake-up that has since rocked Uber, have brought rapt attention to the case. But what’s fueling the fight is the global competition to corner what may become a $7 trillion industry by 2050. The suit could knock Uber back in a race that has drawn in the world’s biggest automakers and tech companies as well as countless startups.

At the heart of the case is the idea that Waymo developed important technologies first and Uber — which didn’t launch its self-driving project until 2015 — stole its work to catch up.

Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car project and now a division of Alphabet, is testing autonomous Chrysler Pacific minivans in at least three cities and plans to commercially launch a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix this year. In the past week, the company announced it would order thousands more of the vans. Navigant Research recently ranked Waymo among the top companies in the business, just behind General Motors.

Uber began offering test rides in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh last year and has said it will soon be able to operate cars without safety drivers. But the Navigant report ranked it as an industry challenger, two rungs below Waymo.

Google jumped on autonomous driving earlier than many, launching its self-driving car project in 2009. Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski worked there, then left to form the autonomous truck startup Otto in 2016. Waymo alleges that before he left, Levandowski used special software on his laptop to get into Waymo’s design server and download more than 14,000 confidential files about the company’s Lidar designs.

Other Waymo engineers who later worked for Levandowski at Otto also stole secrets, the suit charges. Waymo alleges that when Uber acquired Otto later that year, partly for its Lidar system, what it really got was technology stolen from Waymo. Lidar, which uses lasers to sense cars, people, and objects around a vehicle, is a critical component in most autonomous vehicles and the focus of a race to boost resolution and cut size and cost.

Waymo says it discovered Uber was using its Lidar designs when it was accidentally copied in on an e-mail from one of Uber’s Lidar component providers.

“Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology,” the complaint said.

Uber promptly denied the charges and called the suit “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”

After filing the suit on February 23, 2017, Waymo asked Judge Alsup to halt Uber’s self-driving initiative until the case could be decided. In May, the judge declined to shut down the project but ordered Levandowski not to work on any Lidar-related projects.

Late last year, a letter to Alsup revealed that federal prosecutors were conducting a criminal investigation related to Uber’s acquisition of Otto. It said they were looking into the possibility that Kalanick and Levandowski used “non-attributable electronic devices” to communicate outside of Uber’s official systems.

Preparations for the trial have played out against the backdrop of a shake-up at Uber that forced Kalanick out as CEO and altered the company’s board. Among the triggers were controversy over allegations of sexual harassment and underhanded surveillance practices at the company.

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

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