Judge rules that Uber does not have to cease self-driving car project

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Beleaguered Uber Technologies Inc. finally got a win of sorts. The ride-hailing giant won’t have to suspend its self-driving car project, according to a court judgment unsealed Monday.

Waymo Inc., owned by Google Inc. parent Alphabet Inc., had previously lodged an application with the court arguing that Uber should be forced to cease ongoing development on the grounds that it was using stolen technology.

The ruling, made by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, was not a complete win for Uber, however. Alsup ruled that Anthony Levandowski, the man at the center of Waymo’s allegations of intellectual property theft, be removed from any work relating to the development of LiDAR. That’s an essential component of self-driving cars that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to allow an autonomous vehicle to see where it is going.

The judge also demanded that Uber do “whatever it can to ensure that its employees return 14,000-plus pilfered files to their rightful owner,” in effect conceding that Levandowski had indeed stolen technical specifications from Waymo.

“The evidence indicates that, during the acquisition, Uber likely knew or at least should have known that Levandowski had taken and retained possession of Waymo’s confidential files,” Alsup said in his ruling. “Waymo has also sufficiently shown … that the 14,000-plus purloined files likely contain at least some trade secrets.”

Waymo was also on the receiving end of mixed results. The judge ruled that the company’s claims of patent infringement were “meritless” and that Waymo has “overreached, in attempting to claim ownership over general principles and approaches in the field.” In a statement, the company unsurprisingly failed to mention that setback, noting that “competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions … We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology.”

How the new rulings sit for either company going forward with the lawsuit is not clear at this stage. The demand that Uber hand over stolen documents will potentially give Waymo further evidentiary discovery opportunities going forward. But the fact it failed to have its attempts to shut down Uber’s self-driving program may indicate that the judge may ultimately rule primarily on the actions of Levandowski and perhaps Uber’s acquiescence to his behavior, rather than blaming Uber as a whole as having set out to steal Waymo’s technology.

Photo: iwasaround/Flickr