TECHNOLOGY

Alphabet’s Self-Driving Car Startup Accuses Uber of Stealing Trade Secrets

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Waymo says a former employee stole nearly 10 GB of data and then met with high-level Uber executives. He resigned from Waymo 12 days later.

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BY Salvador Rodriguez - 24 Feb 2017

Waymo CEO John Krafcik

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Waymo, the company spun out of Google's self-driving car technology, on Thursday filed a lawsuit accusing Uber and Otto, a company Uber acquired last year, of stealing intellectual property.

Waymo is suing both Uber and Otto, a startup that was acquired by the San Francisco ride-hailing giant for $680 million last summer after being launched by former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski in early 2016. Waymo claims that Uber and Otto have stolen "Light Detection and Ranging" technology -- a core piece of tech for any self-driving car tech company.

The alleged theft of the technology, which reads like a crime drama, began in December 2015, according to the lawsuit by Waymo, which is owned by Google parent-company Alphabet. In December 2015, "Levandowski specifically searched for and then installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop in order to access the server that stores these particular files." He connected an external drive to his computer for eight hours and proceeded to download "more than 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary files," or nearly 10 gigabytes of intellectual property. Afterward, "he installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints."

About a month after downloading this data, Levandowski met with Uber, the lawsuit says.

"After downloading all of this confidential information regarding Waymo's LiDAR systems and other technology and while still a Waymo employee, Waymo is informed and believes that Mr. Levandowski attended meetings with high-level executives at Uber's headquarters in San Francisco on January 14, 2016," the lawsuit says. It's unclear who these executives were.

A day after that meeting, Levandowski officially formed the company that would become Otto, the lawsuits says. Twelve days later he resigned from Waymo without notice. Levandowski sold Otto to Uber in August. "Notably, Otto announced the acquisition shortly after Mr. Levandowski received his final multi-million dollar compensation payment from Google," the lawsuit says.

Waymo alleges that aside from Levandowski, several other former Waymo employees who went on to join Otto did the same and stole company data as well.

The company says it suspected that Otto and Uber had stolen trade secrets due to the speedy acquisition of Otto after just half a year of existence, and last summer, Waymo began investigating the departure of these employees, the company said. Those suspicions grew in December when a Waymo employee was copied on an email that included Otto files.

"Attached to the email was a machine drawing of what purported to be an Otto circuit board (the 'Replicated Board') that bore a striking resemblance to--and shared several unique characteristics with--Waymo's highly confidential current-generation LiDAR circuit board, the design of which had been downloaded by Mr. Levandowski before his resignation," the lawsuit said.

Waymo said it made a public records request to the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development and Department of Motor Vehicles earlier this month. That request resulted in key documents, Waymo said.

"This was the final piece of the puzzle: confirmation that Uber and Otto are in fact using a custom LiDAR system with the same characteristics as Waymo's proprietary system," the lawsuit reads.

Waymo is suing Uber for violating a California business code, violating multiple trade secret laws and the infringement of multiple patents. The company is seeking to be awarded an amount to be proven at trial, in the document.

"We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully," an Uber spokeswoman said.

The lawsuit comes after a week of grueling headlines for Uber, which has been dealing with claims of widespread sexism and sexual harassment by a former employee. Earlier this month, CEO Travis Kalanick also decided to quit his role as an advisor on President Trump's business council after consumer pressure from hundreds of thousands of displeased users.