Uber’s self-driving car division faces tough battle in Waymo court case

Otto self-driving truck

Uber Technologies Inc. began fighting for the survival of its self-driving car program today in a court battle that could have far-reaching consequences on the future of the budding autonomous vehicle industry.

Waymo Inc., the Google Inc. self-driving car division that was spun out into a separate company in December, filed a lawsuit against Uber in February, accusing the ride-hailing company of stealing confidential files and misappropriating Waymo’s LiDAR technology.

In its court filing, Waymo accused former Google employee Anthony Levandowski of downloading more than 14,000 confidential files before leaving to found Otto, a startup that specializes in installing self-driving technology in commercial semi-trailer trucks (pictured).

These files allegedly included schematics and other information relating to Waymo’s LiDAR technology, which the company claims has been directly copied by Otto. In August, Uber purchased Otto for more than $680 million, and Waymo revealed in court today that Levandowski had previously received Uber shares worth roughly $250 million, which vested the day after he resigned from Google without notice.

In March, Waymo asked a judge to halt Uber’s work on self-driving car technology, but the company’s request was rejected. Waymo later claimed that Uber intentionally hid some of its self-driving technology from the court, but an Uber spokesperson called these claims “baseless.” Today, Judge William Alsup also remained skeptical of Waymo’s serious accusations against Uber.

“Part of the problem is your best proof is against Levandowski,” said Alsup. “It is true that you have very solid proof that he did all that downloading under suspicious circumstances. But you didn’t sue him, you sued Uber. So what if it turns out Uber is totally innocent? What if the worst thing they did was pay a lot of money to hire away a brilliant guy from a competitor? And he downloaded all this information, and didn’t consult them?”

Charles Verhoeven, Waymo’s attorney, said that the company intends to prove that Uber did not act in good faith in its purchase of Otto and that the company was complicit in the alleged trade theft. Meanwhile, Uber claims that even if Levandowski did in fact steal files from Google, it was not aware of any wrongdoing and never had direct access to those files.

Alsup also questioned whether evidence of Levandowski’s Uber shares was relevant to the case at hand, and Verhoeven argued that the deal demonstrates bad intent by Uber and Otto. Waymo even claims that Otto’s may have existed solely for Uber to have a legitimate means of acquiring Levandowski’s data.

Verhoeven also said that Levandowski “tried to cover his tracks” by wiping data from his laptop in order to hide evidence. “The statements I’ve made, Your Honor, are undisputed,” he said. “Mr. Levandowski has taken the Fifth Amendment.”

Arturo Gonzalez, a lawyer for Uber, said today that Waymo’s statements seem to be focused entirely on Levandowski, and he argued that Waymo’s case seems to be more of an arbitration matter against a former employee rather than a lawsuit for trade secret theft.

“We are adamant that we did not use any of their secrets,” Gonzalez said.

Photo: Otto