Google Accuses Uber of Stealing Self-Driving Technology
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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A Google spin-off company has accused Uber of stealing intellectual property developed by one of Google’s former project leaders.
As reported by the New York Times, Waymo, which was spun off of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, filed suit in federal court claiming that Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber’s self-driving car division, downloaded 14,000 files from Google shortly before leaving the company to start his own self-driving car business, called “Otto.”
Waymo claimed that Levandowski took “extraordinary steps” to copy the information and then cover his tracks.
A number of other Google employees also left to join Otto.
Uber bought Otto for $680 million in August, seven months after Levandowski left Google.
According to the complaint,
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. Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense.
Waymo said that it learned of the alleged theft when it was accidentally cc’d on an email from one of its suppliers. The email included drawings of Uber’s circuit board design for “lidar” technology.
“Lidar” stands for “light detection and ranging.” It’s a laser-based sensor system used for self-driving cars.
According to the complaint,
LiDAR is a laser-based scanning and mapping technology that uses the reflection of laser beams off objects to create a real-time 3D image of the world. When mounted on a vehicle and connected to appropriate software, Waymo’s LiDAR sensors enable a vehicle to “see” its surroundings and thereby allow a self-driving vehicle to detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists, and any other obstacles a vehicle must be able to see to drive safely. With a 360-degree field of vision, and the ability to see in pitch black, Waymo’s LiDAR sensors can actually detect potential hazards that human drivers would miss.
Waymo asserts that the Uber lidar design had a “striking resemblance” to Google’s own secret design and also infringed Google’s patents.
Waymo is asserting four causes of action:
- Violation of the Defense [sic] of Trade Secrets Act
- Violation of the California Uniform Trade Secret Act
- Patent Infringement
- Violation of California Business and Professions Code Section 17200, which deals with unfair competition
The Defend Trade Secrets Act (Waymo’s lawyers got the name wrong) is a 2016 federal law that allows owners of trade secrets to sue in federal court. Forbes called the Act “The Biggest IP Development In Years,” noting that it gave
trade secret owners a new and powerful option to bring trade secret lawsuits using federal law, whereas before only state law authorized their lawsuits.
As Forbes notes,
Trade secret issues arise with every employee hiring and firing, in every business contract containing a non-disclosure or confidentiality clause, and every time an employee discusses the company’s business with a business partner, the public or friends and family.