Alphabet’s Waymo sues Uber, alleging theft of self-driving car secrets

SAN FRANCISCO — In charges that could delay Uber’s chances of delivering the first commercial self-driving trucks, Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car company Waymo has filed suit against the company for trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Last year, Uber bought self-driving truck company Otto for $670 million.

The potentially explosive suit is just the latest heat in an on-going race by multiple companies to be the first to create truly autonomous vehicles.

Google’s self-driving car unit, since renamed Waymo, has been working on the problem since 2009.

Uber has been playing catch up, in part by buying up talent. That included more than 40 robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015 and then in August 2016, the self-driving truck company Otto.

Otto, crucially, has an almost fully-realized LiDAR ( Light Detection and Ranging) system, used to aid autonomous vehicles in sensing their surroundings. That was technology that Uber lacked and which it needed to move its ambitious self-driving plans forward.

That is the heart of the suit. Waymo alleges that  in December 2016, former Waymo self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 files containing plans and technical specifications, then left the company a month later.

The stolen documents included plans for Waymo’s LiDAR system, the suit alleges.

In May 2016, Levandowski founded  the self-driving truck company Otto.

In an emailed statement, Uber said that it takes the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and will review the matter carefully.

In a posting on the publishing site Medium, Waymo said the theft only came to light because of an error.

A supplier that specializes in the components for LiDAR accidentally sent an attachment containing schematics of an Uber LiDAR circuit board to Waymo on Dec. 13.

When Waymo engineers looked at the design, they saw it “bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s unique LiDAR design,” the post said.

When it looked into the matter, Waymo found that prior to leaving the company, Levandowski had downloaded 7.9 gigabytes of highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems.

According to Waymo, Levandowski first installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop so he could download the blueprints and design files, then connected an external drive to the laptop, presumably to copy over the files.

The files were so voluminous that it took eight hours for him to copy them to an external drive, the suit said.

“Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints,” Waymo said.

According to the suit, on Jan. 14, four weeks after stealing the files, Levandowski attended meetings with high-level executives at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters.

On Jan. 27, according to the suit, he resigned from Waymo without notice. He founded Otto Trucking on Feb. 1.

The suit further alleges that two other Waymo employees stole files and information from the company and then left to join Otto.

Uber has had other issues arise with its rapid push to create autonomous vehicles. It had a very public fight with the California Department of Motor Vehicles over whether it needed permits to drive its test vehicles.

Also on Thursday, Raffi Krikorian, senior director of engineering at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., announced he was leaving the company, according to Recode. Krikorian had joined Uber in 2015 to lead the team of engineers it recruited from Carnegie Mellon.

 

 

 

 

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