The race to commercialize self-driving vehicles is often described as a potential $7 trillion-dollar opportunity. But there’s more than just money on the line. For some companies, it’s existential.
The first act in this win-or-die storyline kicked off Monday in a San Francisco courtroom. The combatants—Waymo, the Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet versus ride-hailing company Uber—have been entangled in a legal tussle for a year. The jury for the case was selected January 30. Monday is the first day of trial, with opening statements from both sides. If time permits, Waymo is expected to call its first witnesses.
The alleged theft of trade secrets by a former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski—and the alleged use of those secrets by Uber—is at the center of Waymo’s lawsuit. Some argue that the lawsuit is merely retribution over Uber’s poaching of Levandowski and other engineers. Waymo will certainly argue that this is about stealing trade secrets and Uber’s attempt to undermine its business.
But in the end, both companies are fighting for control of the wheel.
Why it matters: Both companies are racing to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said that the company must be the first to launch a self-driving ride-hailing service if it hopes to survive. And he made big, aggressive moves to ensure that.
The trial will also give the world—from investors and analysts to the media and competitors—greater insight into the inner workings of Waymo and Uber as well as where we are on the road to a future without human drivers. Although to be clear, don’t expect to learn anything about these trade secrets. Only the jurors will hear that information to protect Waymo’s proprietary information.
As the trial gets underway, here’s a timeline of what led up to the lawsuit and some of the legal wrangling and dramatic twists and turns that highlighted the past year.
August 2013: A filing shows Google Ventures invested $257.79 million into Uber as part of a larger funding round that places the on-demand ride service valuation at $3.5 billion.
January 2016: After nine years at Google, Anthony Levandowski leaves the company to found Otto with Lior Ron.
Updated: Waymo submitted a timeline to jurors on Monday. In the court-approved timeline, Levandowski left Google January 27, nearly two weeks after officially launching Otto (known as Ottomotto).
February 2016: Ottomotto and Uber sign a term sheet.
Late July/August 2016: Otto is acquired by Uber in August 2016. At the time, reports suggested it was acquired for $680 million or about 1% of Uber’s stock. Levandowski becomes head of Uber’s self-driving car research. (Documents filed as part of the lawsuit between Waymo and Uber suggest the pay out might have been as low as $220 million.)
Reports suggest there was trepidation among some Uber executives about the deal and that former CEO Travis Kalanick made a risky bet on Levandowski even after private investigators, who were hired to conduct due diligence on Otto before the acquisition closed, learned the star engineer had possessed five disks of data from Google’s driverless effort and other information, Bloomberg reported. Levandowski told investigators he’d destroyed the disks, but the claim couldn’t be verified. Kalanick (who apparently never read the report) agreed to protect Levandowski from any legal threats from Google.
February 2017: Waymo files a lawsuit against self-driving truck startup Otto and its parent company Uber for patent infringement and stealing trade secrets. The lawsuit alleges that Otto and Uber are using key parts of Waymo’s self-driving technology, specifically related to its light detection and ranging radar. This technology, known in the industry as LiDAR, measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car.
The lawsuit makes a number of allegations specifically against Levandowski, including that he downloaded more than 14,000 confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation.
What’s most striking about the contents of the lawsuit is how Waymo learned of the alleged theft. According to the lawsuit, Waymo was copied on an email from one of its LiDAR component vendors. The email included attached machine drawings of an Uber LiDAR circuit board. Waymo says in the lawsuit that the circuit board bears a striking resemblance to its own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets.
Through the email, Waymo learned that Otto and Uber are building LiDAR components and possibly whole systems. The email also allegedly shows that Otto and Uber’s LiDAR systems infringe multiple LiDAR technology patents awarded to Waymo, according to the lawsuit.
March 2017: Uber seeks to move the trade secret lawsuit to private arbitration to keep company details out of the public eye.
Meanwhile, Levandowski files a motion requesting that details of the due diligence report referencing those confidential files not be included in the lawsuit. Levandowski invokes his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, stating that there was “potential for criminal action” in the case.
April 4, 2017: Uber responds to the lawsuit and Waymo’s injunction filing, calling it meritless and “demonstrably false.” Uber’s official court response is an to prevent a judge from derailing its self-driving car program. Uber argues there is no evidence of any stolen files. The company also says its LiDAR design is different from Waymo’s product.
April 2017: Levandowski steps down from his leadership role at Uber Advanced Technologies Center. He remains at the research center. Uber says he won’t have oversight over its development of light ranging and sensing radar known as LiDAR.
May 2017: U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s ruling is unsealed. The ruling says Uber must promptly return stolen confidential files to Waymo. He stops short of shutting down the ride-services company’s autonomous car program.
Alsup writes that Uber knew, or should have known, that an ex-Waymo engineer it later hired had taken Waymo files potentially containing trade secrets, and that some of the intellectual property had “seeped into” Uber’s own development efforts.
May 2017: A leaked internal email shows Levandowski has been fired, in part for refusing to cooperate with the company’s internal investigations.
June 28, 2017: Uber says it never told a self-driving car executive to download files from his former employer, Alphabet’s Waymo unit, according to a court filing in a contentious trade secret lawsuit.
July 2017: Waymo dismisses three of the four patent-infringement claims in the suit, following Alsup’s request that both parties narrow their issues for the trial. Waymo also drops all but one of the patent claims because Uber abandoned its “Spider” LiDAR design, which had reportedly infringed upon the Waymo patents.
July 9, 2017: Waymo is ordered to provide Uber with documents related to an alliance with rival Lyft. The ruling isn’t a total win for Uber, which wanted to be able to compel Lyft to share documents related to a deal with Waymo to bring self-driving car technology into the mainstream through pilot projects and product development efforts. A judge grants Lyft’s motion for a protective order and to quash the subpoenas.
September 2017: A lawyer for Uber reveals during a court hearing that Waymo is seeking about $2.6 billion for the alleged theft of one of several trade secrets. Waymo attorneys later filed a document with the court noting that the correct figure was actually $1.859 billion.
October 3, 2017: U.S. District Judge William Alsup says he’ll delay the trial until December, saying he was was skeptical Waymo could ultimately prove that Uber’s self-driving car program used Waymo trade secrets. However, Alsup grants Waymo‘s request for more time to investigate documents and e-mails that Uber only recently disclosed. Alsup says Waymo had solid evidence against Levandowski. The trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 4.
October 12, 2017: Reuters reports that Waymo sought at least $1 billion in damages and a public apology from Uber as conditions for settling its trade secret lawsuit. Uber rejected those terms as “non-starters.”
October 19, 2017: CapitalG, the growth investment fund of Google parent company Alphabet, leads a $1 billion financing round in Lyft.
November 28, 2017: Waymo asks Alsup to postpone the trade secrets trial, so the company can investigate whether Uber withheld important evidence in the case. Waymo argues it learned that a former Uber security analyst sent a letter to an Uber in-house lawyer more than six months ago, which contained important facts about the case.
Alsup grants the request and scolds Uber.
Former Uber security analyst Richard Jacobs testifies in court that his lawyer sent a 37-page letter to Uber in-house lawyer Angela Padilla describing an organization within Uber called marketplace analytics that he said exists for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets, code base and competitive intelligence.
January 18, 2018: Judge Alsup denies Waymo’s motion to close the courtroom during the trial, subject to several conditions.
January 30, 2018: Jurors selected for the trial.
February 5, 2018: The trial begins with opening arguments from both companies.