Battle of the self-driving cars: Alphabet’s Waymo sues Uber’s Otto

24 Feb 2017

Image: posteriori/Shutterstock

Waymo is suing Otto for allegedly stealing secret tech.

Alphabet’s self-driving car unit Waymo is suing Uber’s car company Otto for allegedly stealing a key component of its autonomous vehicle system.

Waymo has filed a lawsuit at a San Francisco federal court, claiming that former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski – the engineer who built Google’s first self-driving car – stole tech secrets that are now being used in Otto’s autonomous car system.

‘We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully’

Levandowski is a co-founder of Otto, the truck firm that Uber acquired last year for $680m.

Waymo’s allegations hinge on Levandowski’s final days at Alphabet and a trail of digital breadcrumbs he left in his wake, including web searches, downloads and access to an external drive.

The case is a rare intellectual property (IP) claim by Alphabet, just as the battle for self-driving vehicles gets underway.

Race for self-driving cars is accelerating

Both Waymo and Otto are becoming bitter rivals in the area of autonomous vehicle technology.

The IP in question is the LiDAR sensor technology used in Waymo vehicles. LiDAR – or Light Detection and Ranging – bounces millions of laser beams off surrounding objects to get a 3D picture of the world. It is critical to vehicles detecting other cars, cyclists and pedestrians.

Waymo claimed that the LiDAR sensor was the main reason Uber acquired Otto.

Recently, Waymo said it received an email from a supplier specialising in LiDAR components, which had an attachment showing drawings of the Otto LiDAR circuit board. This design bore a striking resemblance to the Waymo LiDAR design, created by hundreds of engineers at the company over thousands of hours.

Waymo investigated, and alleged that prior to his departure, Levandowski took a haul of confidential data from the company.

In a Medium post, Waymo said: “We found that six weeks before his resignation, this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board.

“To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr Levandowski searched for and installed specialised software onto his company-issued laptop. Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.

“Beyond Mr Levandowki’s actions, we discovered that other former Waymo employees, now at Otto and Uber, downloaded additional highly confidential information pertaining to our custom-built LiDAR including supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information.

“We believe these actions were part of a concerted plan to steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property,” concluded Waymo.

Uber-owned Otto is spearheading the former’s plans to bring self-driving cars to Pittsburgh.

“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” Uber said in a statement.

The case comes at a time of intense activity amongst tech companies and carmakers to steal a march on competitiors in a bid to win the autonomous vehicles race.

For example, Bryan Salesky, a former Waymo engineer, joined up with former Uber self-driving engineer Peter Rander to create a new self-driving car start-up called Argo AI.

Just last month, the company was acquired by Ford for $1bn.

The self-driving car race is accelerating and there is no finish line in sight.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years