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We want Waymo money from you! Uber sued for 'stealing self-driving car' blueprints from Alphabet

How could app maker's week get any worse? Glad you asked

By Shaun Nichols, 24 Feb 2017

Alphabet's self-driving car outfit and Google stablemate Waymo is suing Uber, alleging theft of trade secrets and patent infringement.

Waymo claims one of its former executives who now works at Uber stole more than 14,000 confidential documents related to LiDAR mapping and navigation systems for use in autonomous vehicles – like the ones Uber is trying to develop.

According to the complaint [PDF], filed Thursday in the US District Court for San Francisco, Anthony Levandowski, founder of Ottomotto, the self-driving truck startup Uber acquired for $680m last year, built his company on blueprints lifted in the final days of his job at Waymo.

"Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition. Instead, 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," the complaint reads.

"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."

Interestingly, it's claimed Levandowski, while at Uber, raised suspicions at Waymo after emailing schematics to an electronics supplier and accidentally CC'ing Waymo staff. The attached designs for a LiDAR system resembled Waymo's blueprints, it is claimed. It's also alleged Levandowski, while at Waymo, used his Alphabet-issued laptop to exfiltrate highly confidential documents.

An Uber spokesperson told The Register that "we take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully."

The complaint alleges that after falling behind Google/Waymo in the self-driving car space, Uber conspired with Levandowski to steal the technology for its LiDAR navigation and then defect. Allegedly, Levandowski acted at the direction of Uber when, in late 2015, he accessed Waymo's design server and downloaded 9.7GB worth of documents and data related to the LiDAR system.

"After downloading all of this confidential information regarding Waymo's LiDAR systems and other technology and while still a Waymo employee, Waymo is informed and believes that Mr Levandowski attended meetings with high-level executives at Uber's headquarters in San Francisco on January 14, 2016," the complaint reads.

Less than two weeks later, Waymo claims, Levandowski resigned from his position and opened shop at Otto in stealth mode. He began working to lure away Waymo staff and vendors, along with lifting more internal documents. Otto announced itself to the public in May, and by August it had been snapped up by Uber for a reported $680m.

"Instead of developing their own technology in this new space, Defendants stole Waymo's long-term investments and property," the lawsuit alleges. "While Waymo developed its custom LiDAR systems with sustained effort over many years, Defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable LiDAR system in only nine months."

Waymo claims Uber, with the allegedly stolen technology in its hands, is now infringing three Alphabet-owned US patents:

  • 8,836,922: Devices and methods for a rotating LIDAR platform with a shared transmit/receive path
  • 9,368,936: Laser diode firing system
  • 9,086,273: Microrod compression of laser beam in combination with transmit lens

In addition to those patent infringement claims, Waymo is seeking damages for violations of the US Defend Trade Secret Act, the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, and California Business and Professions Code. It wants a jury trial, and an injunction banning Uber from using the technology.

The allegations will be piled onto what has been a nightmare week for Uber. Already under fire for allegations of sexual harassment by former employees, the dial-a-ride software developer has taken heat for its perceived lack of ethics and toxic workplace culture – a perception that only stands to grow now that it has been accused of stealing a rival's technology to pass off as its own. ®

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