A Stray Email Caused Google’s Waymo to Sue Uber and Otto Over Stolen Tech

February 24, 2017, 12:12 AM UTC
Photograph Courtesy of Waymo

Waymo, the Google self-driving project that recently spun out to become a business under Alphabet, has filed a lawsuit against self-driving truck startup Otto and its parent company Uber for patent infringement and stealing trade secrets.

Otto, which was founded by former Google car and map veterans Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, was acquired by Uber in August 2016 for $680 million.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court of Northern California on Thursday, 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.

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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. The 14,000 files included a wide range of highly confidential files, including Waymo’s LiDAR circuit board designs, the lawsuit claims.

“This calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense,” the lawsuit states.

An Uber spokeswoman said the company takes the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and will review the matter carefully.

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When Waymo was just a mere project housed under Google’s moonshot division X, it used LiDAR from Velodyne. The engineers at Google later developed its own LiDAR, a medium-range version which is located on top of the car. More recently, Waymo’s team of engineers developed two new categories of LiDAR: a short range and a long range LiDAR. Waymo’s self-driving cars now have three LiDAR sensors—a redundancy that is unmatched in the industry.

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.

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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.

The lawsuit also details claims that Levandowski took “extraordinary efforts” to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities.

Fifteen Google engineers ultimately left the self-driving project to join Otto. The lawsuit also claims these former Googlers downloaded additional “trade secrets” before their departure, including supplier lists, manufacturing details, and other technical information.