Until today, the race to build a self-driving car seemed to hinge on who had the best technology. Now it’s become a case of full-blown corporate intrigue. Alphabet’s self-driving startup, Waymo, is suing Uber, accusing the ridesharing giant of stealing critical autonomous driving technology. If the suit goes to trial, Apple’s legal battle with Samsung could wind up looking tame by comparison.
Waymo alleges that Anthony Levandowski, a former Google employee now at Uber, secretly downloaded 14,000 files from its hardware systems, resigned a month later, and then used the information to launch a self-driving truck startup called Otto. Uber acquired Otto last August and put Levandowski in charge of all its self-driving efforts.
The federal civil suit, filed today in California’s Northern District, accuses Uber of violating the Defense of Trade Secrets Act and the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, as well as patent infringement. But the case might only be the beginning of Uber’s struggles.
In a statement, Uber said it takes the allegations seriously and will review the matter carefully.
The complaint, much of which Waymo also posted on Medium, is deeply specific in its accusations, especially against Levandowski. It alleges he downloaded the files, attached an external hard drive to his laptop, then wiped the computer and hardly used it again:
Waymo has uncovered evidence that Anthony Levandowski, a former manager in Waymo’s self-driving car project—now leading the same effort for Uber—downloaded more than 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation. The 14,000 files included a wide range of highly confidential files, including Waymo’s LiDAR circuit board designs. Mr. Levandowski took extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities.
In December 2015, Mr. Levandowski specifically searched for and then installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop in order to access the server that stores these particular files. Once Mr. Levandowski accessed this server, he downloaded the 14,000 files, representing approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data. Then he attached an external drive to the laptop for a period of eight hours. He installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints that would show what he did with Waymo’s valuable LiDAR designs once they had been downloaded to his computer. After Mr. Levandowski wiped this laptop, he only used it for a few minutes, and then inexplicably never used it again.
According to Waymo, the centerpiece of the technology in question is Lidar, which fires off millions of lasers a second to build a detailed map of the world around the car (that’s the “KFC bucket” on top of its self-driving vehicles). Waymo says it invested millions in its own Lidar hardware to make its self-driving technology affordable at scale, and that Levandowski brought all that work to Uber. (Waymo says it figured this out thanks to an email from a supplier that perhaps inadvertently included an attachment detailing Uber’s Lidar setup—and that it looked just like Waymo’s.)
Levandowski has built a reputation for a cavalier approach to rules in general. In December, he insisted Uber’s autonomous cars didn’t need to apply for a special permit under California law and set them loose in San Francisco. The California DMV disagreed and revoked the vehicles’ registrations. (So Uber put them on an Otto truck and hauled them to Arizona.) Now, Waymo’s accusing him of being positively Snowdenesque.
The suit is just the latest in a string of bad news for Uber: CEO Travis Kalanick faced criticism for joining President Trump’s economic advisory council, which he quit after public anger boiled over into a viral #deleteUber campaign. On Sunday, a former Uber programmer claimed in a blog post that she faced sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, and that Uber management did little to help. (Kalanick has promised an investigation.)
Waymo and Uber are among the biggest players in the race to develop autonomous driving technology. Waymo, originally known as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, has been working on the tech for nearly a decade and has logged more than 2 million miles of testing on public roads. In December, Waymo launched as a standalone company with the goal of bringing the tech to market in the near future.
Uber’s self-driving effort is younger but moving quickly. In 2015, it established a tech center in Pittsburgh after poaching dozens of researchers from nearby Carnegie Mellon University. In September, it launched a pilot program in the city, inviting members of the public into its vehicles (with engineers at the wheel, ready to take over). It did the same in Arizona just this week.
For Uber, failure to produce its own autonomous technology could prove deadly: If competitors can offer ridesharing without passing most of the fare onto human driver, they could drive Uber out of business if the company doesn’t develop similar technology. And Waymo is hardly the only competition: Ford, General Motors, Nissan, and a hoard of startups are charging into the autonomous ridesharing arena.
“What has happened here is not fair competition,” Waymo says in its complaint.