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Judge slams Uber and Waymo lawyers: ‘I cannot trust what they say’

Anthony Levandowski
Google claims former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski stole internal documents and shared them with Uber.
(Eric Risberg / AP)

The judge overseeing the Waymo-Uber trial over allegations of the theft of trade secrets agreed to postpone the start until Dec. 4 — but not before telling lawyers from both companies he doesn’t trust any of them.

“Despite the excellent quality of the lawyers here, I cannot trust what they say,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said Tuesday at the hearing in San Francisco.

Court documents are filled with “a lot of half-truth, a lot of honest argument that is not quite accurate and overstatements. It’s hard to get anywhere,” the judge said.

The high-stakes trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 10 before Waymo asked for a delay.

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Google has said that engineer Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 internal documents as he left the company to found his own self-driving truck company, known as Otto. Six months after he left what is now Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google, Uber bought Otto in August 2016 for $680 million and named Levandowski head of its self-driving car project.

Waymo says Uber is using trade secrets contained in some of those documents in Uber’s own autonomous driving systems.

Uber denies those claims and has testified that Levandowski did not pass along any data from Google.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Alsup said Waymo “still has a very strong case against Levandowski” but implied that proving a trade secrets violation remains an uphill climb. “This is not the home run they were expecting to find,” he said.

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Under its contract with Levandowski, Google cannot sue him in civil court on the theft allegations, and instead must turn to arbitration. Thus far, the company has chosen not to go that route.

Waymo had asked the court for a continuance to review a “mountain” of documents related to the case only recently released under a separate court order. The documents are drawn from a report drafted by risk management firm Stroz Friedberg, which Uber hired to conduct due diligence on Levandowski and Otto before Uber acquired the company.

The report, parts of which became public Tuesday, states that Levandowski continued to possess downloaded Google data even after he left the company. Waymo lawyers say the report shows that Uber executives knew Levandowski had the material before the Otto acquisition.

If Levandowski were on trial, the evidence would appear to be damning. However, Waymo is suing Uber, not Levandowski. It must prove that Uber possessed Waymo trade secrets, or used them in its own self-driving technology, or both.

In reluctantly agreeing to the continuance, Alsup made clear the new schedule was set in stone and would not be changed.

When Arturo Gonzalez, Uber’s lead lawyer, told the judge he had a conflict with jury selection in another trial, Alsup told him, “Too bad.”

The stakes in the case are high, at least for the businesses involved. Until recently, self-driving cars were considered a science-fiction dream. But the technology has developed faster than anyone expected, and fully autonomous vehicles already are being tested on public highways. Commercial versions are expected to hit the market early next decade. As the industry grows, annual revenue is expected to total tens and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Waymo-Uber case centers on lidar, a technology that bounces laser beams off objects to determine their appearance in fine detail. Lidar works with optical cameras, radar, ultrasound and other sensors to give the self-driving car a “map” of the world around it. Car companies see lidar as an essential component in autonomous vehicles. One exception is Tesla, whose chief executive, Elon Musk, has said lidar is unnecessary.

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The technology is expensive. Companies that can improve lidar performance while bringing costs down are most likely to grab a major chunk of the emerging market.

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell


UPDATES:

2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context.

This article was originally published at 2 p.m.


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