Shedding Some Light on a Shady Business: Waymo and Uber Face Off in LiDAR Trade Secret Case

Earlier today, 5 February 2018, in a San Francisco courtroom, lawyers began to lay their arguments for a case that will have big repercussions in the future of self-driving vehicles. In a market that is valued in the multiple trillions of dollars, the case between Waymo (formerly a Google self-driving project that’s now it’s own company) and Uber (the ubiquitous ride-hailing application) centers around the actions of former Google employee Anthony Levandowski.

After working for the better part of a decade at Google, Levandowski left the company in January 2016 to form his own company. In May 2016, he formed Otto, a company that focused on self-driving technologies.

Despite an internal Uber report indicating Levandowski was potentially in possession of 14,000 files that contained Waymo’s proprietary information, in August, Uber purchased Otto for an estimated $680 million and agreed to protect Levandowski against legal threats.

By February 2017, Waymo sued Uber, alleging patent infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets. The claims centered on LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging radar) technologies developed by Waymo that formed an essential part of their self-driving vehicle program. Waymo alleges that Otto was formed as a fake company and the purchase was orchestrated as a means by which to compensate Levandowski for his corporate espionage. In response, Uber argued that the claims were meritless, and that the technologies it developed were sufficiently different from those developed by Waymo.

In an ironic twist, by May 2017, leaks indicated that Levandowski had been fired by Uber for, in part, failing to cooperate with internal investigations. The case proceeded, however, as the technology at issue is of immense value; Waymo is seeking almost $1.9 billion in damages, which it estimates as the value of 1 of over 20 of its trade secrets it alleges were stolen.

Adding to the already dramatic accusations, a former security analyst at Uber testified that he had sent one of Uber’s in-house counsel a lengthy letter describing practices within the company that were dedicated to the acquisition of other companies’ trade secrets, code base, and other forms of business intelligence.

Though the technologies at issue are not likely to see much immediate press – the judge has closed the courtroom to allow attorneys to explain the technology – the results of the case will be highly publicized. More importantly, the technology involved has the potential to revolutionize the transportation system and greatly reduce the thousands of deaths that occur annually due to automobile collisions. As a result, stockholders, engineers, and the public alike are all likely to pay attention to this high-dollar, high-tech, and high-stakes case.