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Autonomous Vehicles

Waymo Files Suit Against Otto & Parent Company Uber, Alleging “Misappropriation” Of Trade Secrets

The self-driving semi-truck company Otto, and its parent company Uber, are being sued by Waymo (Google) over the alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and infringement of held patents, according to recent reports.

The self-driving semi-truck company Otto, and its parent company Uber, are being sued by Waymo (Google) over the alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and infringement of held patents, according to recent reports.

To put that perhaps more clearly, Waymo claims that it has found clear evidence that Otto and Uber have been utilizing elements of “its self-driving tech related to its custom, in-house LiDAR sensors, which the company unveiled earlier this year,” as TechCrunch worded it in its coverage.

The legal complaint from Waymo notes that it had developed a “combination of unique laser systems to provide critical information for the operation of fully self-driving vehicles,” which was then misappropriated by former manager Anthony Levandowski when he left the company and went to found Otto.

Levandowski apparently (according to Waymo) downloaded more than 14,000 “highly confidential and proprietary files” from the company before leaving. These files included Waymo’s proprietary LiDAR circuit board design, reportedly.

“Amazingly, Waymo says it discovered this chain of events initially when a supplier accidentally copied it on emails to Uber and Otto that contained a circuit board design from the ride-sharing company which looked remarkably like its own,” TechCrunch notes.

Continuing: “Waymo says this theft took place in December 2015, just prior to when Levandowski left and started his own company, which would become Otto in January 2016. The complaint says Levandowski was already setting up his venture prior to leaving the Alphabet-owned operation.”

The legal complaint from Waymo also accuses other former employees who later joined Otto of downloading other trade secrets — including various technical documents and supplier lists.

So, if Waymo is to be believed, then there was a concerted effort to loot the company of intellectual property by a group of people now working for Otto (and thus Uber).

“The Waymo suit cites Biz Carson reporting for Business Insider that Otto’s in-house development of its own LiDAR tech was key to its acquisition by Uber, and the suit also says that Levandowski and Otto gained more than half-a-billion dollars directly via the theft, and that Uber also resuscitated its own stalled efforts to compete with Waymo based on the planned abuses.”

Very unsurprisingly, Uber declined to comment when TechCrunch reached out to them.

If true, I have to wonder about the arrogance behind such decision-making. Wasn’t it clear that there was a real possibility that the theft would be uncovered?

I have to genuinely wonder when reading about things like this, were people always this brazenly stupid? It seems like things have gotten much worse in this regard over just the last few decades to me. Formerly, people seemed to go about their illegal activities and fraud in a somewhat more intelligent and subtle fashion, didn’t they? Is this just another symptom of the “culture of entitlement” that some societal observers have been talking about in recent decades?

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I do seem to remember when many people were more subtle and intelligent in their approach to unethical activities.

Update: The Guardian provides some additional, useful background on Levandowski and Google:

Levandowski, described blandly in the suit as “a former manager” at Waymo, did more than any other person to make Google a world leader in self-driving vehicles.

While working on Google’s Street View maps in 2008, the young engineer built a self-driving Toyota Prius on his own time, using technology developed by his own startup, 510 Systems. He had been working on autonomous vehicles since 2004, when he built a driverless motorcycle for the Grand Challenge, a race for driverless vehicles organised by the Pentagon’s research arm, Darpa. “I didn’t know where this technology was going to be used or how it would work out, but I knew that it was going to change things significantly,” he recalled during an interview in 2016.

“Google was very supportive, but they absolutely did not want their name associated with a vehicle driving in San Francisco,” he said. “They were worried about an engineer building a self-driving car that kills someone and it gets back to Google.”

However, after a successful demonstration in which the driverless Prius delivered a pizza autonomously in the heart of the city, Google’s attitude thawed. Levandowski persuaded the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to buy 510 Systems and bring the car into a secretive new unit of Google called X dedicated to “moonshot” projects.

Waymo’s lawsuit skips over Levandowski’s formative role altogether, stating only that “Google initiated its self-driving car project in 2009”.

Not everyone at 510 Systems was happy with the sudden change. “I regret how it was handled,” Levandowski said in the 2016 interview. “Some people didn’t make the cut … But it worked out well for most of the people involved.”

Levandowski helped develop more driverless cars for Google, quietly testing them on the streets of California before the state enacted laws requiring permits. “If people asked us what was on the cars, we’d say it’s a laser and just drive off,” he said.

He also found a lobbyist and got involved in getting laws passed in Nevada and California to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles. His backroom lobbying did not endear him to some executives at Google.

“I thought you could just do it yourself,” he said. “Then I found out that there is a team dedicated to that, a process. Got a little bit in trouble for doing it.”

Much more on Levandowski’s subsequent business, work at Uber, and legal naivete or carelessness follows in the remainder of the article in The Guardian.

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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