Photo: AP

A federal judge has ordered Uber to remove a key engineer at the center of its high-stakes litigation with Google’s self-driving car project from participating in the development of a key piece of autonomous driving technology. But the judge, William Alsup, allowed Uber’s self-driving research to continue while the case proceeds to trial, a significant relief for the ride-hailing giant.

Waymo, the Google self-driving car project, had asked Alsup to go as far as shut down Uber’s autonomous tech program as the case moves along. But Alsup’s 26-page order only mandates that Uber turn over 14,000 autonomous tech files that were allegedly stolen by Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who later left the company to join Uber. Alsup also barred Levandowski from working on anything for Uber related to LiDAR, a key piece of autonomous tech that is considered essential by most developers to make self-driving cars work.

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Uber has denied that it has utilized any of the allegedly stolen files, and Levandowski has since stepped aside from running the start-up’s autonomous driving division while the case proceeds. Alsup strikes a harsh tone for Uber, however.

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A spokesperson for Waymo said it welcomed Alsup’s order, which formalizes the move to bar Levandowski from working on the technology.

“The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct,” a spokesperson said.

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An Uber spokesperson said: “We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LiDAR. We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up.”

Waymo’s request hinged on claims of patent infringement and trade secret misappropriation. Alsup found the patent infringement claim “too weak to support any provisional relief,” but he stated that Waymo has supplied a “compelling record” that Levandowski stole the files from Waymo. Nonetheless, Judge Alsup explained, the case is rife with difficulty.

“Indeed, [Uber has] already carefully crafted a narrative of their self-driving car efforts that conspicuously and incredibly denies any meaningful contribution by Levandowski—even though Uber, in a deal worth approximately $680 million dollars, hired him to lead those efforts,” he wrote.

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And even if Waymo prevails at trial, Alsup said, it wouldn’t be an “easy matter” to figure out exactly what part of Uber’s technology can’t be used

“It will be a bone-crushing endeavor,” he stated. “And, even then, it may prove impossible to fully restore the parties to their respective competitive positions as if no misappropriation had occurred.”

While both sides can claim victory here, Alsup leaves no doubt that Levandowski’s conduct has proved unseemly. And it comes just days after the judge rejected Uber’s request to move the case to arbitration, while also referring it for a possible criminal investigation over trade secrets theft.

Alsup ordered Uber to do whatever it takes to have the allegedly stolen materials returned to Waymo by May 31. And, by June 23, Uber must produce a log for Waymo of any time Levandowski mentioned LiDAR to Uber employees, suppliers, or consultants.

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“The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo’s intellectual property; that at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber’s own LiDAR development efforts; and that at least some of said information likely qualifies for trade secret protection,” he wrote. “This is sufficient for Waymo to show serious questions going to the merits of its case.”

Check out the full opinion below.