Waymo, Uber Battle Over Self-Driving Vehicle Technology

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on February 12, 2021

Waymo, Uber Battle Over Self-Driving Vehicle Technology

The battle between Google subsidiary Waymo and vehicle service Uber over self-driving vehicle technology may be one of the most significant intellectual property cases of the 21st century—and it’s unfolding before our very eyes.

In February 2017, Waymo LLC filed suit against Uber Technologies, Inc., along with Ottomotto LLC and Otto Trucking LLC (both subsidiaries of Uber). The lawsuit claims that components of Uber’s self-driving vehicle technology were actually stolen from Waymo.

Ubver Waymo Lawsuit

At the heart of the dispute is Waymo’s (and Uber’s) Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) system. LiDAR systems are typically mounted on the exterior of a vehicle. They use a laser array to scan the vehicle’s surroundings continually. By analyzing the laser beams that are “bounced back” to the vehicle by reflecting off various objects, the onboard computer can create a 3D model of its environment, which it can then use to navigate.

Waymo has been in the self-driving vehicle business since 2009—where it began as a project of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. The company has received multiple patents for components of its LiDAR technology. All of these patents, Waymo asserts in its Complaint, represent essential milestones in bringing self-driving cars to the public. Waymo also asserts that Uber infringed one or more of these patents.

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Waymo claims that it first became aware of Uber’s potential theft and misuse of its LiDAR-related trade secrets in December 2016, when a Waymo employee was “apparently inadvertently” copied on an email from a LiDAR component vendor to Uber. The email included drawings of a LiDAR circuit board that looked highly similar to Waymo’s LiDAR circuit boards—information Waymo treats as a trade secret.

Waymo’s own investigation pointed toward a former employee named Anthony Levandowski. Waymo claims that Levandowski stole approximately 14,000 documents, or nearly 10 gigabytes of data, from Waymo just before leaving the company to found his own self-driving tech company in early 2016. That company was acquired by Uber in August 2016. Waymo also claims that the LiDAR circuit board featured in the inadvertent email was among the information Levandowski downloaded.

Where Is the Case Now?

On May 12, 2017, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued several rulings on preliminary matters related to the case. The judge denied Uber’s request for arbitration, keeping the case in the court. He granted Waymo’s request for a temporary injunction prohibiting Uber from using the allegedly stolen information—at least in part. He also referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office to open a criminal investigation on the alleged information theft.

What’s Next for Waymo v. Uber

As the case moves toward trial, both sides will work with a number of experts to establish their respective claims. Judge Alsup has announced plans to require Uber to submit to examination of its LiDAR sensors by an expert and attorney chosen by Waymo. The testimony of this expert and others will be crucial to determining whether Uber’s system infringes any of Waymo’s patents.

While experts focusing on the technical aspects of the respective LiDAR systems will be at the heart of the case, they likely will not be the only experts called to testify. In addition to demonstrating that Uber stole its technology, Waymo must also demonstrate that the tech in question was a “trade secret.” To do that, Waymo will need to establish that the level of protection it provided its technological information was appropriate for a trade secret.

Modern-day security measures are as high-tech as the research they protect. To break down its trade secret protections for a jury, Waymo will likely need experts to explain its encryption methods, security clearances, and similar systems. In turn, Uber will likely call on experts to challenge the “secretiveness” of such security measures. And because a significant part of the case will focus on Levandowski’s actions with the allegedly stolen files, computer experts will likely appear in both the pending civil trial and in any upcoming criminal trial.

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