Theft, trade secrets, a strange request for a private room: Waymo vs. Uber trial is underway

Theft, trade secrets, a strange request for a private room: Waymo vs. Uber trial is underway
Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, left, and Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik. (Associated Press)

Uber's a cheat that used stolen trade secrets to boost a lackluster driverless car project in a craven attempt to keep its ride-hailing business competitive as robots replace human drivers.

Waymo's a crybaby that can't hang on to talented engineers and compensates by filing groundless lawsuits about stolen trade secrets. And Waymo's trade secrets aren't really secret — just stuff any engineer trained in the proper technology would already know.


That, in essence, is the argument each side is making as Waymo, the driverless car arm of Google's Alphabet, squares off in U.S. District Court against Uber.

The long-awaited trial, which started Monday in San Francisco, pits two technology giants battling for supremacy in the emerging industry of driverless cars and trucks.

Plaintiff Waymo says that eight trade secrets were found in a cache of 14,000 documents allegedly stolen by its engineer Anthony Levandowski as he transitioned to Uber.

The stakes of the case and the value of intellectual property to driverless technology is best illustrated in the price Uber paid Levandowski to lure him from Waymo: $592 million.

That covered the driverless truck company Otto, controlled by Levandowski and sold to Uber, with Levandowski's engineering talents as part of the package. A swarm of Waymo engineers followed Levandowski to Uber.

In opening arguments, Waymo lead attorney Charles Verhoeven noted that Uber saw Google's driverless technology as an existential threat to its ride-hailing business and needed to catch up fast. "They decided to win at all costs," he told the jury. Uber founder "Travis Kalanick made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law."

In Uber's opening statements, attorney Bill Carmody said bluntly that "there was no cheating." The reason, he said, is that what Waymo claims are trade secrets are not trade secrets at all.

"There's not a single piece of Google proprietary information at Uber," he said. "Zero, period."

Waymo will have to prove that the trade secrets are legitimate, and that they are or have been in Uber's possession.

Waymo wants to stop Uber from using its technology for competitive advantage, and for Uber to pay $1.8 billion in damages. The Google offshoot can win its case if it can prove that Uber is using any of the supposed eight trade secrets in its own lidar technology.

Many market researchers predict the driverless market will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue by the end of the next decade, when all products and services are included.

"There is a big competition, and Google is in the lead because they developed it in the first place," Verhoeven said.

To simplify the idea that Uber tried to catch up with Waymo by cheating, he told the story of Rosie Ruiz, who "won" the 1980 Boston Marathon by riding the subway part of the way. She was found out and disqualified.

Throughout his opening statements, Verhoeven punctuated technical arguments with the phrase, "they took the subway."


The first witness to take the stand was Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik.

Waymo attorneys tried to paint the 56-year-old silver-haired executive as a polished, accomplished gentleman whose utmost concern is improving automobile safety and saving human lives.

Uber tried to cast Krafcik as a beleaguered team leader desperate to stanch an exodus of top talent from Waymo.

Krafcik described his career to the jury – an engineer, auto industry executive and Internet entrepreneur before joining Waymo in September 2015.

Asked by Waymo's attorney how many children he had, Krafcik said two. Would he feel safe with them traveling inside a Waymo driverless car? "Yes, I would."

His demeanor shifted downbeat as an Uber attorney produced emails that showed Levandowski had attempted to set up a separate driverless car project within Google outside Krafcik's authority.

He was also grilled about several highly regarded engineers who left Waymo for other companies and start-up projects in the months after Krafcik's arrival.

In one early January 2016 email shown to the jury, Levandowski complained to Google Chief Executive Larry Page that the driverless car project is "broken" and "we are losing our tech advantage fast."

Other emails show Page eager to keep Levandowski from leaving.

Krafcik testified that Levandowski "was someone I was getting to know and understand" before the engineer left without notice late in January 2016 to join Uber.

Later that year, he sold Otto, a new company to develop driverless trucks, to Uber for $592 million.

When Levandowski quit, Krafcik said, the hotshot engineer became his "enemy," though Krafcik adopted the maxim "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." The two exchanged at least one phone call and 100 or so Twitter messages, and met for lunch at a Five Guys hamburger joint, Krafcik said.

The long-anticipated trial began with U.S. District Judge William Alsup criticizing a "famous" witness' request to take the stand in a private room outside the view of the public.

"I won't name any names, but one witness who thinks he's important wanted a private room," the judge said. "Neither of your sides is going to get a private room, just because they're famous."

There are only two people on the current witness list who could be considered famous. One is Krafcik, who sat in the courtroom when Alsup rejected the notion of private accommodations. The other is Kalanick, Uber's embattled co-founder.

He was nowhere to be seen Monday.

Twitter: @russ1mitchell


4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional testimony from the trial.

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Uber attorney Bill Carmody during opening statements.

9:45 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven during opening statements.

This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m.