Robotic cars

Are Uber's robotic cars in peril?

Published 5.4.2017
TTJ is monitoring coverage of the lawsuit brought by Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet, formerly Google) against Uber. Waymo alleges that a former employee, Anthony Levandowski systematically downloaded proprietary files about its robotic car technology, then sold it to Uber.

If it were proven that Levandowski and Uber conspired in taking the information, that could have dire consequences for Uber, say legal and ride-hailing industry experts. Uber's $68 billion valuation is propped up in part by investors' belief it will be a dominant player in the emerging business of self-driving cars.

At issue on Wednesday is Waymo's demand that U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco issue an injunction barring Uber from using any of the technology that Waymo said was stolen. If Alsup issues a broadly worded order against Uber, it could all but shut down Uber's self-driving car program while court proceedings continue.

The judge was not expected to rule, but might tip his hand as to how he is leaning. Although he has criticized Waymo’s complaint for being overly broad, he has also noted that he has seldom seen a case with such compelling evidence. The case is a much bigger deal for Uber than Waymo. Waymo, with Googles cash behind it, can take the time needed to get the technology correct. Uber must have the technology to replace its expensive drivers.

Levandowski himself has invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination because of the possibility of a future criminal probe. And last week, Levandowski said in an email to Uber employees he would stay at Uber but was stepping down from his work on Lidar.

Levnadowski also wouldn’t answer if Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, asked him to steal the data. Given Kalanick's history, it is an entirely plausible theory that the entire episode was his idea.

Waymo claims that Otto, the company Levandowski set up after leaving Google, was not a real company, but was a shell company created so that Uber could purchase it and get the stolen technology.

Autonomous driving company Waymo alleged today in court that the formation of rival Otto was a ruse concocted between its founder Anthony Levandowski and eventual acquirer Uber to hide the fact that he immediately went to work for the ride-hailing company after leaving Waymo’s parent company, Google.

To prove its case, Waymo points to a stock grant with a vesting date of January 28, 2016 — the day after Levandowski resigned without notice — that grants Levandowski more than 5 million shares in Uber. The shares are estimated to be worth more than $250 million.

At the hearing, the judge said there was overwhelming evidence that Levandowski took the files, but there was no “smoking gun” to show that Uber used them.

The judge’s comments cast doubt on whether he’ll grant Waymo’s request to freeze Uber’s efforts to develop a fully autonomous car until a jury issues a verdict in the case. Waymo has made a strong case that engineer Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files before he left the company to form a startup that he later sold to Uber, but “there’s not much proof” Uber used the allegedly purloined information in its research and development, Alsup said during a hearing in San Francisco.

Based on the reporting, Levandowski is definitely at risk, but Uber isn’t off the hook yet either. Whether or not the judge decides to immediately stop Uber’s robotic car effort, the case heads to trial in October. Waymo is still collecting evidence, and its evidence as clearly impressed the judge.

What Waymo has not proven yet, is that Uber actually used the stolen files or had them on their servers. This doesn't mean that engineers at Uber could not have looked at the files on Levandowsky's computer, obviously. It just hasn't been proven yet.