After a year of legal jockeying, a high-profile trial between ride-hailing company Uber and Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo is finally kicking off Monday. The case centers on whether Uber advanced its self-driving car program by relying on autonomous tech files allegedly stolen from Google. Here’s what you need to know.
In particular, former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski is accused of stealing 14,000 files from the company’s servers before he left the company to launch a self-driving truck startup called Otto that was later acquired by Uber. Levandowski was later fired by Uber for refusing to assist in the company’s internal investigation of the purloined documents, and he’s so far exercised his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, facing a possible criminal investigation for trade secrets theft.
But here, for you to digest, is a very straightforward summary of how this began, what’s at stake, and what’s to come.
An Email Flub
When you realize the entire case centers around two massive companies, and people who’ve been surrounded by technology their entire lives, the genesis of this situation is memorable.
Sometime in December 2016, an Uber employee sent an email with the subject line OTTO FILES that contained drawings of what resembled Uber’s LIDAR circuit board. (LIDAR, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is a laser-based radar that’s viewed by many in the industry as crucial for producing capable self-driving cars.)
The issue with the email? The Uber employee CC’s someone from Waymo. The other issue? Waymo believed it resembled one of its own designs. Oops. From there, Waymo dug in and found more evidence of what it believed was an orchestrated attempt by Uber to hire Levandowski with the intent of using Waymo’s self-driving car knowledge to advance its own autonomous driving ambitions.
The two-to-three week trial’s going to cover specific legal claims of trade secrets theft levied by Waymo against Uber. The federal judge overseeing the case, William Alsup, has said that it doesn’t matter whether Uber hired Levandowski and, by virtue, acquired stolen Waymo goods. Waymo has to prove that Uber actually used the stolen trade secrets or was able to cutback significant time in the process of developing its own. Here, in particular, is why there’s such a heated dispute. (Uber, for one thing, hasn’t developed its own in-house LIDAR just yet.)
During the legal wrangling leading up to the trial, Waymo acquired a damning report that showed it still hired Levandowski, despite completing a due diligence report that cast doubt on whether he took—and kept—the files from Google. The report’s likely to play a key role in Waymo’s case against Uber.
What Happens Next
The auto industry’s surely looking on with great anticipation over the case’s outcome. Alsup has raised serious questions about what it could mean for employees who jump around companies in Silicon Valley, a place well-known for short-term employments.
“Is an engineer really supposed to get a frontal lobotomy before they go to the next job?” he said. “I think the answer has to be no.”
Similar cases have propped up over the last year, most recently with electric car startup Faraday Future, which accused a number of former execs of stealing trade secrets before heading off to start a new venture.
Both sides have plenty to prove. Uber, in particular, has lost a lot of momentum on its self-driving car program from this case, so it has the incentive to prevail in court. Waymo, meanwhile, has what’s considered the top self-driving car program in the industry; surely it wants to put a stop to the use of the stolen technology, if Uber had in fact utilized some of it for the company’s own program.
There’s the potential for some sort of settlement to be reached between the two, after the trial concludes. (Waymo reportedly had asked for $1 billion and a public apology from Uber to end the case.)
But, in reality, whatever the jury decides, the case is almost certainly far from over. Whoever loses will probably appeal, and whoever loses at that level will probably appeal again, and we’ll be talking about this case for years to come.