[By SDD Contributor]
Google engineer ‘plotted with Uber to steal its self-driving car secrets – then unlawfully downloaded thousands of confidential documents to build fleet of Uber driverless trucks‘
Two of Silicon Valley‘s biggest tech names are facing off in a bitter court dispute over claims Uber‘s self-driving cars use secrets stolen from Google by one of its executives.
Google claims that Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files of information while working for them – then went off to set up a self-driving car firm which he had already said would be bought by Uber.
The explosive claims are being aired in a bitter legal dispute in San Francisco federal court, where the two tech giants worth more than $800 billion combined are squaring off to determine the future of self-driving cars.
Lawyers acting for are trying to get Judge William Alsup to stop from using what it claims are stolen trade secrets to develop its driverless vehicles.
Google and its subsidiary Waymo claim that one of its former engineers downloaded 14,000 highly confidential files before he left and set up Otto.
Otto is now Uber‘s self-driving truck company – and Google claim that the car-service company has benefited from its secrets to the tune of $500 million.
It alleges that one of the key figures in Google‘s self-driving cars, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded their trade secrets, set up his own firm and promptly sold it to Uber – who now benefit from the cache of Google‘s know-how.
In the lawsuit, Google claims that it is ‘calculated theft‘ and that it made Uber half a billion dollars.
In a post on the blogging site Medium, Google claimed that ‘misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company‘.
In court documents Uber say that Levandowski had acknowledged speaking an Uber executive involved with self-driving cars in summer 2015 – when Levandowski was still working for Google.
Pierre-Yves Droz, the principal hardware engineer at Waymo, made the explosive allegation in sworn testimony
‘Mr. Levandowski had previously told me, in or around the summer of 2015, that he had talked with Brian McClendon, an Uber executive involved with their self-driving car project,‘ he said in court papers filed at federal court.
‘We were having dinner at a restaurant near the office, and he told me that it would be nice to create a new self-driving car startup and that Uber would be interested in buying the team responsible for the LiDAR we were developing at Google.‘
The extraordinary case has pulled back the curtain on the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley and the espionage-like tactics that companies allegedly use on their rivals.
It is on the same level as the battle between Apple and Samsung over the iPhone patent and could have major consequences for self-driving cars, a nascent industry predicted to be worth $42 billion by 2025.
At stake is Uber‘s entry into the self-driving car world, which has seen it reveal both self-driving Uber cars and self-driving trucks.
Should Uber lose, it will cap a miserable year in which it has been accused of creating an aggressive corporate culture which allows women to be sexually harassed.
That could put at stake its long-term future by badly damaging its corporate reputation.
At the center of it is Levandowski, a fiercely talented and driven man who Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick has likened to his brother from another mother, praise which now is rather problematic given the company‘s recent problems.
The 36-year-old, who stands six foot seven inches tall and has been described as ‘swaggering‘ in one profile, is also known for skirting rules and doing things his own way.
Levandowski is a legend in the driverless car industry and developed Google‘s self-driving car program in his spare time through his own startup, 510 Systems, in 2008 while working on the company‘s Street View maps.
After a successful test he persuaded a dubious Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google‘s founders, to buy 510 Systems and develop the car further.
Since then Google has sunk billions into self-driving cars while Uber has tested self-driving trucks and taxis, with the goal of replacing drivers for both.
Rivals Tesla, General Motors and Ford are investing billions in the industry, too.
The legal dispute centers around Levandowski‘s decision to leave Google in January and set up his own company, Otto, which was bought by Uber for around $680m three months later.
The speed with which this happened caused Waymo ‘grave concern‘ that it had been ripped off, concerns which, the lawsuit claims, were justified.
According to documents filed in the Northern District of California, Waymo developed its own system of laser sensors known as LiDAR which scan and map the world in real time, allowing driverless cars to ‘see‘ the world and move around without hitting anything.
WHAT IS LiDAR?
In lidar — or light detection and ranging — scanning, one or more lasers sends out short pulses, which bounce back when they hit an obstacle, whether clouds, leaves or rocks.
In self-driving cars, the sensors constantly scan the surrounding areas looking for information and acting as the ‘eyes‘ of the car.
Waymo invested ‘tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of engineering time‘ in the project.
The result was that the company ran the world‘s first self-driving trip in a car with no wheels or foot pedals.
The lawsuit states that Waymo‘s suspicions intensified when it was ‘apparently inadvertently‘ copied on an email from one of its vendors which had images attached to it of what was an Uber LiDAR circuit board.
The circuit board bore a ‘striking resemblance to Waymo‘s own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets‘, it‘s claimed.
The lawsuit says this is evidence that Otto and Uber‘s driverless systems ‘infringe multiple LiDAR technology patents awarded to Waymo‘.
‘Uber’s LiDAR technology is actually Waymo’s LiDAR technology,‘ Waymo allege.
Waymo said in the lawsuit: ‘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.‘
Waymo alleges that Uber is guilty of trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition.
It accused Levandowski of downloading 14,000 confidential documents, including information on Waymo‘s LiDAR circuit board.
Waymo alleges that he undertook ‘extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo‘s designer server‘ and downloaded 9.7 gigabytes of ‘highly confidential data‘ to an external hard drive.
HOW OTTO DRIVES
Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of US highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks.
For now, the robot truckers would only take control on the highways, leaving humans to handle the tougher task of wending through city streets.
The technology fitted in Otto‘s trucks uses Lidar sensors on top of the cab to read the road ahead, with the data fed back to a computer to analyse the data and make adjustments to speed and steering.
Levandowski is said to have connected the drive to his computer and apparently transferred the data somewhere – then wiped the machine and never used it again.
The lawsuit claims that he also downloaded additional confidential Waymo documents to a personal device including five ‘highly sensitive internal presentations containing proprietary technical details‘.
And it claims that after he left to start up his own self-driving car technology company, other Google employs left to work with him.
‘A number of Waymo employees subsequently also left to join Anthony Levandowski’s new business, downloading additional Waymo trade secrets in the days and hours prior to their departure,‘ Waymo alleges.
‘These secrets included confidential supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information, all of which reflected the results of Waymo’s months-long, resource-intensive research into suppliers for highly specialized LiDAR sensor components.‘
On March 10, Waymo upped the ante and filed a request for an immediate injunction against Uber to stop it using its technology.
It included testimony from three Waymo employees which it said showed clearly that Levandowski had stolen trade secrets. The most damning was Pierre-Yves Droz, who co-founded 510 Systems with Levandowski before Google bought it in 2011.
Droz claimed that Levandowski met with Uber‘s vice president of mapping, Brian McClendon, in the summer of 2015 and that Levandowski was surprisingly open about his future plans.
Droz‘s testimony said: ‘We were having dinner at a restaurant near the office, and [Levandowski] told me that it would be nice to create a new self-driving car startup and that Uber would be interested in buying the team responsible for the LiDAR we were developing at Google.
‘Later in January 2016, a colleague told me that Mr Levandowski had been seen at Uber‘s headquarters in mid January.
‘I asked Mr Levandowski about this, and he admitted he had met with Uber, and the reason he was there was that he was looking for investors for his new company.‘
At that time Otto, Levandowski‘s company, was being set up but was not officially founded.
Droz said: ‘I distinctly remember taking a walk around our Mountain View office one-on-one with Mr. Levandowski on or around January 5, 2016.
‘During this walk, he told me specifically that he wanted his new company to have a long-range LiDAR, which is very useful for self-driving truck applications he was interested in. He also told me that he planned to ‘replicate‘ this Waymo technology at his new company.‘
It also highlighted the speed with which Uber took over Levandowski‘s firm.
‘Otto launched publicly in May 2016, and was quickly acquired by Uber in August 2016 for $680 million. (Notably, Otto announced the acquisition shortly after Mr. Levandowski received his final multi-million dollar compensation payment from Google.),‘ Waymo‘s court papers say.
The case is being heard by Judge Alsup, who will have to decide on Waymo‘s request for the injunction before the proper trial in April. Judge Alsup will almost certainly allow the trial of the Waymo and Uber case to be shown live if the press request it, adding to the spotlight for both companies
There was also testimony from Waymo security engineer Gary Brown, whose forensic tests of Levandowski‘s Google-issued laptop allegedly showed he downloaded 14,000 files from the company.
In addition to Levandowski, former Google employees Sameer Kshirsagar and Radu Raduta are also accused of downloading additional Waymo trade secrets, such as confidential supplier lists, before they left.
As a sign of how rancorous the case is, Google has filed 38 newspaper articles showing how far behind Uber is when it comes to automated cars.
Among the articles is a piece from the tech website The Verge about how Uber ‘gutted‘ the top robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon to create its self-driving cars in what was supposed to be a partnership arrangement.
‘These guys, they took everybody,‘ a person who worked there said.
Google alleges that Uber‘s self-driving car program was started in February 2015 and that it was ‘late to enter the self-driving market‘.
A year later the program was ‘floundering‘ despite hundreds of people working on the project, and therefore resorted to ‘willful, malicious and fraudulent‘ conduct by allegedly stealing its top secret information.
According to Waymo, Uber wanted to catch up ‘by any means necessary‘.
Tech website Recode reported that Levandowski was hired by Kalanick, the boss of Uber, when he became frustrated that the Carnegie Mellon team were not making progress fast enough.
Recode also reported that Kalanick felt that Uber was not living up to its win-at-all-cost culture; the company routinely skips around regulation in new markets until city officials catch up with it.
The case is being heard by Judge Alsup, who will have to decide on Waymo‘s request for the injunction before the proper trial in April.
In court filings he has asked for both sides to get their arguments in order and noted in one order that Waymo is asking for ‘extraordinary and drastic relief‘.
The judge is no stranger to these types of cases and has presided over a dispute between Google and Oracle in a high stakes patent dispute.
He is also not afraid to express his opinion.
During one hearing, the judge scolded both companies and said: ‘You‘re both asking for the moon and you should be more reasonable.‘
Judge Alsup will almost certainly allow the trial of the Waymo and Uber case to be shown live if the press request it, adding to the spotlight for both companies.
During the Oracle and Google dispute, he admonished the Oracle lawyer when he tried to close it down.
Judge Alsup said: ‘This is public proceeding. Your lawyers and companies are not going to handcuff the court.
‘This is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle Corp.‘
A spokesman for Uber said: ‘We are incredibly proud of the progress that our team has made.
‘We have reviewed Waymo‘s claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court.
‘In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.‘
GOOGLE‘S CARS BECOME WAYMO
Google turned its self-driving car division into a new company called Waymo, in December 2016.
And it revealed the vehicles it will use – specially developed Crysler minivans. The hybrid vehicles are expected to form part of Google‘s ridesharing service, and are already being tested in California.
As we get fully self-driving cars ready for the road, we‘ll need more types of vehicles to refine and test our advanced driving software,‘ Waymo CEO Jon Krafcik wrote.
‘That‘s why in May we teamed up with FCA to work on adding 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to Waymo‘s fleet.
‘With this great new minivan on the road in our test markets, we‘ll learn how people of all ages, shapes, and group sizes experience our fully self-driving technology.‘
The team has spent six months on the joint program.
Using several of our early prototype minivans, we‘ve already run a gamut of tests, including over 200 hours of extreme-weather testing,‘ Krafcik said.
‘Before starting production in October, we‘d put these early vehicles through their paces at our own test track in California, and FCA‘s Chelsea Proving Grounds in Chelsea, MI and their Arizona Proving Grounds in Yucca, AZ.
We‘re looking forward to having these new vehicles on public roads in 2017.‘ To underscore his point, Krafcik revealed the project had hit a key milestone in the journey to having fully autonomous cars cruising around public roads.
In a trip taken in October 2015 , a pod-like car with no steering wheel and brake pads drove a legally blind passenger around neighborhoods in Austin, Texas without another human in the vehicle.
It marked the first time one of the project‘s cars had given a passenger a ride without a human on hand to take control of a self-driving car if something went wrong.