If you’re not familiar with the ongoing legal tiff between Google’s self-driving car spin-off, Waymo, and Uber, over alleged “stolen” technology used for autonomous driving, here’s the gist – along with recent developments.
Anthony Levandowski, after dabbling in self-driving vehicle technology at college, eventually joined the Google self-driving car project. While there, he was part of several critical development areas, including LiDAR, which is a laser-based ranging technology that Waymo uses on its own fleet of self-driving cars.
One day, Levandowski quit Google and started his own company, called Otto. But not before he allegedly downloaded no less than 14,000 documents belonging to Google. He then sold Otto and all its technologies to Uber, the car-hailing company, for $680 million.
Recently, after an email from an Uber vendor was accidentally copied to a Waymo employee, all hell broke lose. Why? Because the circuit board schematics that were in the email looked suspiciously like Waymo’s own tech.
Google immediately took action, but not only against Levandowski. They brought on a lawsuit against Uber, which now owns the technology that Google says belongs to them.
For a more detailed look at the story, you can read this article linked below, which also gives a background on Levandowski and his own experience with self-driving technology prior to joining Google.
The fight between Google and Uber is now heating up, because one of the other people who left Google’s self-driving car project to join Uber (after downloading even more confidential documents) is now missing in action, according to the company’s attorney, Arturo Gonzalez.
What’s worse, Google fought tooth and nail to prevent Uber’s in-house lawyers from reviewing documents relevant to the case – documents that are confidential because they hold many secrets to Google’s self-driving technology.
After a brief back-and-forth, it has now been agreed that only one lucky Uber lawyer, Nicole Bartow, would be allowed to see the unredacted versions of these court filings that contain Waymo trade secrets.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez, the lawyer who told reporters about the disappearance of the other employee, Radu Raduta, also told them that Uber plans to fight this lawsuit on the grounds that the “whole matter” is between Google and Levandowski, implying that Uber cannot be involved in it.
But that’s a sticky situation, because Uber now owns the “evidence” which, in this case, is the LiDAR technology – or parts of it – that power its own fleet of self-driving cars. Uber is obviously trying to distance itself from being embroiled in a legal battle against one of the world’s most powerful companies.
If Google succeeds in blocking Uber’s self-driving trials around the United States it could set the car-hailing company back several years, because they’d have to deploy different technologies to achieve the same objective. That’s not something that is likely to go down well with its investors.
However, there are a couple of things that could help swing things in Uber’s favor. First is the fact that Levandowski had developed an early form of LiDAR on his own, which he showcased for Google in 2008 and wowed the company into practically letting him run the self-driving project. Of course, it was Sebastian Thrun who got all the limelight for what was one of Google’s “moonshot” projects at the time, but Levandowski wasn’t exactly a mid-level employee at Google.
The other point, as noted by Reuters, is that Uber acquired Tyto Lidar LLC in May 2016. The company holds its own LiDAR patent. That could offer the company a way out of this mess with Waymo.
For its part, the car-hailing major calls the accusations a “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”
Levandowski himself says: “We did not steal any Google [intellectual property]. Just want to make sure, super clear on that. We built everything from scratch and we have all of the logs to make that ― just to be super clear.”
Everything now depends on which way the court rules at the hearing scheduled for April 27.
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