Waymo v Uber is about much more than just trade secrets

6 Feb 2018

Uber office in Michigan. Image: Linda Parton/Shutterstock

The legal battle between Waymo and Uber is set to be brutal.

It has been almost an entire year since Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber for allegedly stealing a major component of its self-driving vehicle system.

Alphabet’s self-driving car unit Waymo filed the suit in a San Francisco federal court, where it claimed that former employee Anthony Levandowski stole secret information, which was then implemented in Uber’s self-driving efforts.

The technology in question concerns the light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor, used to enable vehicles to detect other cars, pedestrians and cyclists. According to Waymo, this technology was what led Uber to acquire Levandowski’s company, Otto.

A tumultuous time

In May 2017, Levandowski was unceremoniously fired from his engineering role at Uber, due to the legal woes. The company cited his apparent lack of cooperation in the case as the primary reason for his termination.

November 2017 saw Uber experience heavy losses as it battled with its reputation as a tech villain, with new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at the helm. At this time, Uber was also accused of withholding evidence from former security analyst Richard Jacobs’ lawyer about allegedly unethical business practices at the firm.

Yesterday (5 February), the trial officially began after what seemed like aeons of litigation. Alphabet is famously not a very litigious company, so the judgment in the case carried major weight.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s comments about the need for Uber to win the automated vehicle race were brought up in the courtroom, noting his combative tone: “The golden time is over. It is war time.”

Waymo’s strategy for the case seems to be emphasising Kalanick and Levandowski’s interactions, painting Uber as a cut-throat organisation willing to take extreme measures to achieve success. Waymo’s lawyer, Charles Verhoeven, said: “It made a decision that winning is more important than obeying the law.”

Focusing on the law

Uber’s team is striving to keep attention on the law of the case: the alleged theft of trade information by Levandowski. At present, it is not clear that Uber even received the trade secrets, let alone used them.

While the company admitted that Levandowski took meetings at Uber while still employed at Waymo, and that he then accessed internal documents, it does not necessarily mean anything illegal or underhanded went on.

A Google employee said of the documents: “It was considered low-value enough that we had even considered hosting it off Google infrastructure.”

Uber is trying to paint a picture of Waymo’s concern over losing top self-driving talent to a rival as a major driver for Alphabet to file the suit, as well as the company’s personal grievances towards Levandowski.

Alphabet CEO Larry Page was allegedly annoyed Waymo had let Levandowski walk away from the firm.

The jury will have to determine whether trade secrets were indeed stolen and, crucially, used by Uber, but it will have to be convinced of Waymo’s vengeful motives.

Uber office in Michigan. Image: Linda Parton/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects