Google spinoff Waymo vs Uber: Does Uber have a defense against claim of self-driving car secrets theft?

An explosive lawsuit against ride-hailing giant Uber by Google self-driving car spinoff Waymo rests on allegations that a former Google executive went to 007-caliber lengths to steal secrets before he left the company and ended up at Uber — and that Uber couldn’t have developed its robot car program without the purloined technology.

But a new report presents what may — or may not — provide Uber with a key defense against its Silicon Valley rival. And the stakes are very high: a loss in the lawsuit could be catastrophic for Uber, according to a Wired report.

Uber, if it loses, might have to pay Waymo anywhere from “a few million to billions of dollars” and could be ordered to stop work on any robot car technology using allegedly stolen data, Wired reported.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has reportedly called self-driving vehicles “basically existential” for his company.

According to Wired, “a legal loss could devastate Uber’s self-driving car program, and thus the company’s future.”

Uber is meanwhile facing another crisis over claims by a former female engineer of sexual harassment at the firm and news that Kalanick reportedly asked an executive to resign after he failed to disclose he’d been accused of sexually harassing a woman at Google when he’d been an exec there. The man has denied the allegation of harassment.

Google has led the way on development of autonomous cars since starting work on them in 2009. Uber entered the field much later, with its August acquisition of self-driving truck firm Otto for $680 million. It has also launched, with some controversy, pilot programs for autonomous vehicles as a passenger service.

It is around Otto, and its co-founder Anthony Levandowski, that claims in the lawsuit swirl.

Waymo alleges that before Levandowski quit the firm  — then a unit of Google — with no notice, he had told co-workers he planned to launch a rival autonomous vehicle startup, and had, in a surreptitious effort resembling something out of a spy thriller, made off with 14,000 “highly confidential” files.

Waymo claims that those files, and other data Levandowski allegedly stole and brought to Otto then to Uber, gave Uber the LiDAR laser-rangefinding technology it needed for autonomous vehicles. Waymo alleges it received a misdirected email from a LiDAR component vendor that showed Uber had its hands on Waymo’s own LiDAR circuit board design.

LiDAR in autonomous vehicles builds a 3-D picture of surroundings to help the vehicles “see” what’s around them.

Uber has called the lawsuit “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.” Levandowski told Forbes in October that “we did not steal any Google IP” and that “we built everything from scratch.” His remark was unprompted by any suggestion of intellectual property theft, and came during conversation about Otto’s late entry to autonomous vehicles relative to Google, according to Forbes.

And now a new report has held up a potential defense for Uber: the company, it turns out, bought its own LiDAR company last year. Its Tyto purchase raises the possibility that Uber could have developed its own robot vehicle technology without anything from Waymo.

“The acquisition of Tyto means that at least two executives with long experience in LiDAR — one as early as 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile — transferred to Otto and then Uber. Both had previously worked at Velodyne, another Silicon Valley LiDAR pioneer, according to LinkedIn,” Reuters reported March 1.

“Tyto also came to Otto with a patent for a LiDAR scanner that was filed in 2013 and has since been reassigned to Uber, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website.”

Could having made the Tyto purchase protect Uber against Waymo’s claims?

Maybe.

Trade secrets cases are often circumstantial and based on allegations that a company couldn’t have done what it did without stolen technology, Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman told Reuters.

That component of Waymo’s arguments “could be rebutted,” Goldman said.

But Uber could still be undone if Waymo can prove Levandowski downloaded the confidential files and that Uber used the information to design a LiDAR circuit board, Goldman said.

That alleged downloading was James Bond-like in its sneakiness and technological wizardry, the lawsuit suggested.

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,” the suit alleged.

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 LiDAR technology, 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.”

Waymo and Uber declined to comment to Reuters on the how the Tyto acquisition might affect the legal case.

 

Photo: An Uber self-driving car is pictured in Arizona. (Uber)

 

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