Self-driving cars: Uber faces Waymo in trial over race to remove the driver

SAN FRANCISCO —  There’s a big trial starting Monday between two companies you’ve probably heard of — Uber and Waymo, the autonomous car company owned by Google-parent Alphabet.

But their brawl is over a topic you might not be familiar with: the technology inside a little spinning eyeball on the top of a self-driving car’s roof.

Uber says its self-driving car project uses so-called LiDAR – or light detection and ranging – tech created by its own braintrust. Waymo says not so fast: We think your LiDAR actually was built using trade secrets stolen from us.

The alleged thief: Anthony Levandowski, a talented robotics expert who came up through the ranks at Google’s self-driving car program, but then in early 2016 abruptly left to start a new self-driving truck company called Otto.

A few months later, Uber bought the fledgling startup for nearly $700 million. Waymo contends that Uber knew it was buying access to Waymo trade secrets that Levandowski took from Google shortly before leaving, including details about its LiDAR.

LiDAR tech is critical to self-driving cars, as it scans the horizon with lasers to help the vehicle “see” its environment. There are a number of companies that make off the shelf LiDAR, such as Velodyne. But in the race to build the first commercially viable autonomous car, automakers and tech start-ups see proprietary LiDAR technology as potentially giving them an edge.

Uber says its LiDAR comes from its engineers, not stolen documents. Waymo — which gave the public an early inkling of a self-driving car, in the form of a cute compact with no steering wheel — isn’t buying it. And the judge in the case, William Alsup, hasn’t been shy about his feelings over the course of the past year of discovery motions.

What’s at stake is whether Waymo, if it wins, gets to put the pedal down and pull away even more from Uber in the race to deploy driverless cars, tarnishing its tech rival’s image even more in the process. Or whether a redeemed Uber can burnish its name on this front while continuing with its plan to develop a commercial driverless car fleet.

Courtroom drama

All parties will meet up in Alsup’s courtroom in the U.S. District court building in downtown San Francisco at 8:00 am Monday morning.

The moment has been a long time coming. Waymo filed its lawsuit against Uber a year ago. The case has already made several surprise twists.

Uber managed to avoid halting its self-driving car program, as Waymo had wanted. But the pre-trial period surfaced more evidence of the dodgy business practices that dogged Uber’s final months under ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, who was pushed out in June.

One of the most explosive examples was an allegation that it had a secret program, employing ex-CIA agents, that conducted unauthorized surveillance of its competition and its own employees and contractors, as well as used systems to hide documents from lawyers and regulators. Uber, now helmed by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, has said its new leadership doesn’t support that kind of behavior.

The details on the surveillance program came to light during an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which launched a criminal investigation of Uber after Alsup referred the case to the office in May.

In the pre-trial period, Waymo has effectively been accusing Uber of bad corporate behavior and attempting to hide or obstruct evidence along with stealing its trade secrets.

Uber’s response has been along the lines that Waymo is just suing to gain a step on a competitor and should get down to the businesses of proving Uber actually used Waymo trade secrets to develop its own tech.

A jury was quickly selected last week, and Monday will begin with opening arguments by both sides. First Waymo and then Uber will then call their lists of witnesses to the stand, a who’s-who of the self-driving car world.

Up in the first week will be former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski, who Uber fired in May. Also on Uber’s list is former Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun, who launched Google’s self-driving program nearly a decade ago and now runs the online learning site Udacity, and John Krafcik, the ex-Hyundai North America boss who is now Waymo’s CEO.

On Waymo’s witness list: Krafcik as well as Waymo’s vice president of engineering, Dmitri Dolgov, and of course Kalanick, whose connection to his former company diminished even further recently when, according to Bloomberg, he made plans to sell 29% of his stake in the company, valued at $1.4 billion.

They’ll present their cases before a judge who’s already proved to be outspoken and eager to leap into the fray with tart remarks. He has laid out in detail how the trial will run, including a limit of just 16 hours of testimony for each side to make its case.

Waymo’s job is to convince the jury that Uber has made use of eight trade secrets, all about LiDAR, that it improperly got through Levandowski and others. That means at crucial points in the testimony the courtroom will be sealed and everyone but the judge, jury and lawyers will have to file out until the secret portion is finished.

Uber’s argument is expected to be that it never used Waymo information to create its own LiDAR, even if Levandowski joined Uber through the Otto acquisition armed with knowledge about Waymo’s trade secrets — some of which Uber contends aren’t trade secrets at all.

What’s at stake

Waymo hopes to get the court to stop Uber from using the technology it says Uber stole from it. It also wants financial damages which could go as high as $1.86 billion.

Uber wants Waymo to leave it alone so it can get on with the business of developing self-driving cars, not to mention start changing its image under new Khosrowshahi.

For both, the case is ostensibly about having first, or at least early, mover advantage in the realm of self-driving vehicles, widely expected to become broadly used and vital to all aspects of transportation in the coming decades.

On that front, Waymo has a well-established lead, having started on the quest in 2009. It currently has a driverless self-driving car pilot program running in Phoenix that is expected to open up to the general public later this year. In contrast, not much is known about where Uber’s program is after the very public kick-off of its self-driving tests in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2016.

Uber has a business model that will “live or die on this technology, because they can’t make money right now (paying drivers a cut of each ride). So they’ll have to robot cars or else,” says veteran auto industry analyst Karl Brauer. “If they have to, they’ll just source their LiDAR from someone else, and keep going on their way.”

But there’s an underlying acrimony that’s built up over the past year that adds a personal element to the fight between the two tech titans.

“If Google just ignored the whole thing and went about their way, would they get behind? No, they’re way ahead of Uber,” says Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive. “But there’s too much at stake to let it slide. Even if it’s just making Uber pay for their transgressions.”

Even Judge Alsup has essentially intimated the companies might do better to settle out of court instead of airing their dirty laundry — and potential information about trade secrets —in court, says Dorothy Glancy, a law professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in the intersection of technology and transportation.

“They seem so angry with each other, there’s just this tremendous corporate animosity,” she says.

The biggest irony, adds Glancy, is that the battle of the tech titans could turn out to be more about bragging rights than actually scientific secrets. “At this point,” she says, “they’re probably arguing over technology that is somewhat dated.”

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