The main issue in the high-profile case between Uber and Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, is whether Uber is using Waymo’s allegedly stollen intellectual property to build its autonomous driving system. But the backstory of the engineer at the center of the case, Anthony Levandowski, is utterly convoluted—evident by yet another revelation on Wednesday: Uber discussed purchasing Levandowski’s self-driving truck start-up, Otto, just two days after he resigned from Google.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Waymo’s attorneys said at a hearing on Wednesday that Uber attorneys discussed among one another the potential for defending Levandowski in litigation on Jan 29, 2016. Levandowski abruptly departed Google on Jan. 27, and Otto was incorporated just two weeks before that. The WSJ says Uber didn’t dispute the existence of the email.
The evidence, according to the WSJ, “appears to affirm allegations by Google’s driverless-car unit, Waymo, that Uber and ... Levandowski were in contact around the time of his departure from Google—and that Uber was aware of certain risks associated with the startup, months before it bought it.”
Levandowski’s background could become a focal point in Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber. In February, Waymo accused Uber of using 14,000 self-driving car design files that were allegedly stolen by Levandowski to help build the ride-hailing giant’s autonomous car system.
The statement by Waymo’s attorneys in court affirms earlier reports that Levandowski became entwined with Uber almost immediately after resigning to launch Otto. As we reported last week, Levandowski was reportedly hired as a consultant to Uber’s self-driving car project just days after leaving Google, and Uber had a preliminary agreement worked out with Levandowski to purchase Otto in April 2016, just two months after he started Otto.
The case has also revealed that Google has a pending arbitration claim against Levandowski, who allegedly attempted to woo Google employees to a new autonomous driving venture and was invested in direct competitors, in direct contravention of his employment contract with the tech giant.
The arbitration claim accuses Levandowski of being invested in a company called Tyto Lidar, which was purchased by Otto shortly after he launched the autonomous truck start-up, as early as 2012. Records obtained by Jalopnik showed Levandowski was at one point the landlord for Tyto; his close friend, Ognen Stojanovski, was the manager of Tyto before it was purchased by Otto, and both were on the same team in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, the well-known competition for autonomous vehicles. Google at one point considered purchasing Tyto, and even deployed Levandowski to investigate whether to purchase the company.
“On information and belief, [Levandowksi] was privy to Google’s impression of Tyto’s products and process, including Google’s confidential opinion of Tyto’s technology and the viability of Tyto’s business,” the arbitration filing says. “Throughout this process, Levandowski never disclosed a relationship with Tyto and its employees.”
Uber denied that the allegedly stolen files are being used to develop its autonomous car system. Waymo’s seeking a preliminary injunction that could hinder Uber’s ability in the race to develop a self-driving car system. A hearing is scheduled in the matter May 3.