Google accused rival Uber of plotting a devious “cover up scheme” with a former Google engineer in order to steal crucial self-driving car technology, a bombshell claim that turned up the heat in what has already become Silicon Valley’s most high-profile legal battle in years.
In a court hearing in San Francisco on Wednesday, Google’s lawyers sought to portray Otto, the startup company founded by a former Google engineer, as nothing more than a front company designed to help Uber catch up in the highly competitive self-driving car field.
Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, but according to Google’s lawyers, Otto was never meant to operate as a real business. Anthony Levandowski, the engineer who left Google and founded Otto, planned all along to go to Uber, Google alleged. In fact, Uber gave Levandoswki $250 million dollars in stock the day after he quit Google in January 2016, lawyers said in court. (An Uber spokesperson later told reporters that it was a document from August and simply back-dated for time-served.)
“Through discovery we’ve learned that Uber and Levandowski created a coverup scheme for what they were doing. They concocted a story for public consumption,” said Waymo’s lawyer Charles Verhoeven.
The hearing on Wednesday marked the opening round of a legal battle between two of Silicon Valley’s tech superpowers, each trying to establish supremacy in the nascent market for self driving car technology. At stake is a market that could one day be worth tens of billions of dollars, upending everything from the automotive industry to the fast-growing ride-hailing business that Uber has pioneered to become the world’s most valuable private tech company.
A lot of money and a brilliant guy
Uber’s alleged conspiracy to secretly build a company before later acquiring it is a large part of Waymo’s bid to stop Uber’s research from self-driving cars.
Waymo, the name of Google’s self-driving car spinoff, alleges that in 2015, its former star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded more than 14,000 files — 9.7 gigabytes of data — containing information about the company’s self-driving-car technology to his laptop and transferred those files to an external storage device. Those files included plans for Waymo’s proprietary lidar system, according to the company. His new company, Otto, was later acquired by Uber more than six months later.
Judge William Alsup pushed back Google’s claims and asked whether Uber could be innocent in all of this and maybe the “worst thing they did is pay a lot of money to hire away a brilliant guy from another competitor.”
“Here’s the thing. You didn’t sue him. You sued Uber. So what if it turns out that Uber is totally innocent?” Alsup asked.
While Waymo has argued that Levandowski and Uber were clearly in cahoots, it hasn’t presented evidence yet that Uber knew that Levandowski had downloaded the files or instructed him to do so.
Here’s what Waymo said that it’s discovered so far:
- October 2015 — An Uber engineer, Scott Boehmke, makes a note in his Lidar journal about a discussion with Uber’s Brian McClendon. The two had talked about a “NewCo”. The pros are “experience with automotive competitors” and cons are no track record and no details.
- January 2016 — Waymo says Uber was meeting with Levandowski before he even left Google. An email sent by MClendon says that he’s preparing to meet with an “Anthony” tomorrow. Another email, with a file called “NewCo Deliverables”, said that “this list of deliverables is a high bar for sure But then again so is what he is asking for in $$.”
- January 27, 2016 — Levandowski leaves Google with no notice.
- January 28, 2016 — Uber promises 5 million shares of Uber stock vesting a day after he leaves in a “notice of restricted stock award.” That amount is worth more than $250 million, according to Waymo’s lawyers. “The very next day, he’s getting awarded stock by Uber when he’s supposedly starting his own company, when he’s supposedly building his own technology, he’s secretly working for Uber,” Verhoeven said. An Uber spokesperson later told reporters during a court break that the document was from August when the acquisition closed and back-dated to include his time at Otto.
- January 29, 2016 — Emails with Uber’s lawyers, that are being withheld from Waymo, are related to an “anticipation of litigation” related to the acquisition of Ottomotto.
- March 2016: Uber says Waymo started contemplating suing Anthony Levandowski.
- April 11, 2016 — Uber and Levandowski enter into a Joint Defense Agreement
- August 18, 2016 — Uber announces the acquisition of Otto
In its rebuttal, Uber’s lawyer Arturo Gonzalez argued that Boehmke’s notebook entry was part of his activities of that time of evaluating potential third party Lidar companies. That could’ve included talking to Levandowski in case he decided to set up his own company.
The emails about Uber being concerned about potential litigation eight months before it even acquired the company too were in response to a real threat, Gonzalez said. Waymo had started contemplating suing Uber in March 2016, Uber learned during discovery.