Google spinoff Waymo accuses Uber of self-driving car theft

Waymo is accusing Anthony Levandowski, shown in December, of stealing pivotal technology now propelling Uber's effort to assemble a fleet of autonomous vehicles.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Waymo, a self-driving car company founded by Google, is colliding with ride-hailing service Uber in a court battle revolving around allegations of betrayal, high-tech espionage and greed.

The brewing showdown emerged late Thursday in a lawsuit filed in a San Francisco federal court by Waymo, a once-secretive company hatched by Google eight years ago.

The 28-page complaint accuses Anthony Levandowski, a former top manager for Google’s self-driving car project, of stealing pivotal technology now propelling Uber’s effort to assemble a fleet of autonomous vehicles for its ride-hailing service.


The alleged chicanery occurred in late 2015, before Levandowski left to found a start-up called Otto that is building big-rig trucks that navigate highways without a human behind the wheel. Uber bought Otto for $680 million last year, and Levandowski is now overseeing Uber’s effort to develop and dispatch cars driven by robots.

Uber and Levandowski didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The dispute highlights the high stakes in the race to build self-driving cars that promise to revolutionize not only the way that people get around but also the automobile industry. Waymo and Uber are two of the early leaders; long-established car companies such as Ford, Toyota and General Motors are scrambling to catch up.

Waymo’s lawsuit escalates the tensions between Google and Uber, two onetime allies that are morphing into rivals. Google invested $258 million in Uber, but its mapping subsidiary Waze is now expanding a carpooling service that could attract riders away from Uber. The budding rivalry prompted a top Google executive, David Drummond, to resign from Uber’s board of directors six months ago.

Waymo now operates as a subsidiary of Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet Inc., but its roots are in Google, where Levandowski worked for years.

The complaint cites evidence that Levandowski loaded 14,000 confidential files on a laptop before leaving to join Otto. It says the files included the designs for circuit boards needed for LiDAR, an array of sensors that enable self-driving cars to sense what’s around them so they can safely navigate roads.

Waymo contends that other former Google employees also stole trade secrets before leaving to join Otto. Without such skulduggery, Waymo alleges, Levandowski and the other former Google employees wouldn’t have been able to build the Otto technology that generated the windfall from the Uber sale.

Uber, which has been around for less than a decade, has a reputation for testing legal boundaries.

The San Francisco company has tangled with authorities in California and around the world about how much of its drivers’ histories should be covered in background checks and whether those drivers should be treated as contractors ineligible for employee benefits. Late last year, Uber quickly suspended a test of its self-driving cars in San Francisco after regulators revoked the vehicles’ registrations for not having the proper permits.

Waymo is seeking a court order prohibiting Uber from relying on its technology in its self-driving vehicles as well as damages that could be tripled on some of the infringement claims if it prevails in court.


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