Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Uber. The company has alleged that the technology being deployed by Uber in its autonomous cars is in infringement of patents that are held by Waymo.
The complaint was filed it filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition. Instead, Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology.
The patent infringement is laying a significant bit of interest on the LiDAR technology. LiDAR in case you are unaware of it, is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating that target with a laser light. So basically, LiDAR works by bouncing a whole bunch of laser beams off the surrounding objects and measuring the time taken for the light to reflect. The method is finding huge application in the field of autonomous cars.
Waymo parent Alphabet and Uber have a longstanding relationship that extends to a $200 million investment made by Google Ventures into Uber. Which is something that makes this lawsuit all the more surprising. In a medium post on the topic, Waymo touched upon some of the reasons behind this lawsuit and how it came to believe that Uber and Otto had stolen its technology.
Recently, we received an unexpected email. One of our suppliers specializing in LiDAR components sent us an attachment (apparently inadvertently) of machine drawings of what was purported to be Uber’s LiDAR circuit board — except its design bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s unique LiDAR design.
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 specialized 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.
Levandowski had also been risqué enough to tell colleagues that he was planning to replicate Waymo’s technology at one of its competitors. And apparently, Levandowski wasn’t the only loose bolt Waymo discovered in its mechanism.
Waymo said that two other former Waymo employees who were now at Otto and Uber respectively, were also part of the espionage and had downloaded additional highly confidential information associated with Waymo’s custom-built LiDAR.
Phew! Just when Uber seemed to be doing so well with its autonomous car operations. The company had only recently expanded its self-driving cab service to the state of Arizona.
Waymo’s lawsuit catches Uber at a particularly bad time. The company is already dealing with the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment, made by a former Uber employee. Although the company has set up a committee to investigate the matter, even the committee has been brought under scrutiny by early stage investors.