Google self-driving car spin-off Waymo sues Uber, accuses former manager of stealing thousands of files

An explosive new lawsuit by self-driving firm Waymo accusing ride-hailing giant Uber of using Waymo’s patented technology reads like a classic spy thriller with a 21st century twist and a misdirected email thrown in.

Waymo, spun off from Google in December into its own company, claimed one of its former managers systematically plundered its computer systems of valuable, proprietary data — some of which is allegedly now being used by the man’s current employer, Uber.

Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 “highly confidential” files from Waymo — then a unit of Google — just before he resigned last year, according to the suit filed Feb. 23 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit or a related Medium post referred to below have been proven. Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment, or to make Levandowski available for an interview.

“Mr. Levandowski took extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities,” said the lawsuit, obtained by tech website The Verge. “In December 2015, Mr. Levandowski specifically searched for and then installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop in order to access the server that stores these particular files.”

Once into the server, Levandowski, a software engineer whose “Ghostrider” robot motorcycle is in the Smithsonian, downloaded nearly 10 gigabytes of data, including designs related to Waymo’s laser-based LiDAR technology used by self-driving cars to “see” surroundings in 3-D, the suit claimed.

Then he attached an external drive to the laptop for a period of eight hours. He installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints that would show what he did with Waymo’s valuable LiDAR designs once they had been downloaded to his computer.”

Not in dispute is the fact that Levandowski left Waymo and co-founded an autonomous-truck company, called Otto. The suit alleged that in the months before he stole the files, Levandowski had confided to colleagues shortly before quitting Waymo in January 2016 that he planned to “replicate” the firm’s technology in a rival startup.

An internet-domain name for the new venture had been created in November 2015, the suit claimed.

In fact, Mr.Levandowski appears to have taken multiple steps to maximize his profit and set up his own new venture – which eventually became Otto – before leaving Waymo,” the suit claimed. 

Otto launched in May and Uber announced in August it had bought it for $680 million. Levandowski would go on to lead Uber’s move into self-driving vehicles.

It was a mistake by a LiDAR component vendor that confirmed Waymo’s “growing suspicion” that “Otto and Uber stole its intellectual property,” the suit claimed. Waymo was “apparently inadvertently” copied on an email from the vendor, according to the suit.

“The email attached machine drawings of what purports to be an Uber LiDAR circuit board,” the suit said. “This circuit board bears a striking resemblance to Waymo’s own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets.

“As this email shows, Otto and Uber are currently building and deploying (or intending to deploy) LiDAR systems (or system components) using Waymo’s trade secret designs.”

A supply chain manager and a hardware engineer from Waymo also lifted proprietary information, including confidential supplier lists and manufacturing details, in the “days and hours” before they left to join Levandowski’s new venture, the suit claimed.

“We believe these actions were part of a concerted plan to steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property,” Waymo said in a Feb. 23 Medium post about the lawsuit.

Waymo has spent tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of its engineers have spent thousands of hours to develop the firm’s “unique” LiDAR system, the post said.

“Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company,” the post by the “Waymo Team” said.

Levandowski, after in December 2015 helping himself to Waymo’s data — which also included five “highly sensitive” internal presentations on LiDAR — went on Jan. 14, 2016 to San Francisco to meet with high-level Uber executives in their headquarters, the suit claimed. The next day, Levandowski’s startup was officially formed, called “280 Systems” before it became Otto, according to the suit. Less than two weeks later, Levandowski quit Waymo without notice, the suit said.

Uber had announced the Otto acquisition “shortly after Mr. Levandowski received his final multi-million-dollar payment from Google,” the suit said.

Waymo’s lawsuit also questioned the high price Uber paid for Otto, calling $680 million “a remarkable sum for a company with few assets and no marketable product.” The suit noted a Forbes report that said a key reason for the acquisition may have been the LiDAR system “developed in-house at Otto.” (Otto had told Nevada regulators it had developed a LiDAR system in-house, the suit said.)

Uber’s Otto made history in October with the first-ever robot-truck delivery, 50,000 cans of beer driven 120 miles in Colorado with a human driver for backup and non-highway driving.

“Over the next couple of years, we’ll continue to develop the tech, so it’s actually ready to encounter every condition on the road,” Otto co-founder Lior Ron told Wired magazine, which reported that the beer-delivery truck had three LiDAR sensors on the cab and trailer.

Tech website Recode had also referred to a similar motivation for the purchase. “By buying Otto, Uber bought proprietary autonomous technology that can be retrofitted into vehicles,” Recode reported in August.

Waymo, seeking unspecified damages, claims in the suit that Uber came “late” into the autonomous-vehicle market, in 2015, and then its effort “stalled.” The violation of trade-secrets laws and infringement on Waymo patents allowed for the robot-vehicle project to be revived, according to the suit.

The lawsuit noted a report that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had in August referred to development of an autonomous vehicle as “basically existential for us.” In the report, Kalanick appeared to refer to Google when discussing the technology.

“The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car],” he told Bloomberg. “Because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.”

 

Photo: A self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan from Google spin-off Waym. (Courtesy of Waymo)

 

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