Autonomous driving

Uber, Waymo square off in tech theft trial that echoes Baidu’s dispute with former executive

At the start of a court battle pitting Uber against autonomous driving rival Waymo, internal emails revealed that Google engineers worried about losing advantage to self-driving car initiatives from Baidu and Didi Chuxing.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 4:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 11:32pm

An epic court battle between Uber Technologies and Waymo, the autonomous car subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, that centres on the alleged theft of self-driving technology, began with accusations of sinister plots and other devious behaviour lobbed in both directions.

The trial is likely to be closely monitored by Nasdaq-listed internet search company Baidu, which is engaged in a similar dispute in China against the former head of its autonomous driving unit and the self-driving technology start-up that he launched last year.

In opening arguments on Monday in the United States, Waymo sought to prove that former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick orchestrated the departure from Google of Anthony Levandowski, a former star engineer at the online search giant, to turbocharge the ride-sharing company’s own self-driving car programme using technology stolen by Levandowski in the weeks leading up to his departure.

“Losing was not an option,” Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven said of Uber in his opening statement. “They would do anything they needed to do, no matter what.”

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In Uber’s account, Waymo filed a threadbare lawsuit because it was losing engineers to Uber and other companies and wanted to hobble its rival.

Uber counsel William Carmody said there was no evidence that Uber relied on any of Waymo’s technology, although he acknowledged that Levandowski may have acted improperly before he left Google to run his own start-up in January 2016.

Levandowski is not named in the lawsuit, even though the case revolves around Waymo’s allegations that the engineer illegally took thousands of documents from Google to Uber. He is expected to take the stand during the trial, which is expected to last until late February.

Google kicked off the modern driverless car age when it started its driverless car project in 2009, years before other companies. That initiative was renamed as Waymo in December 2016, when it became a separate subsidiary under Alphabet.

Levandowski founded a self-driving truck start-up called Otto after leaving Google; Uber later acquired it and appointed him to run its self-driving car division.

At the start of the trade secret theft trial between Uber and Waymo, email and other internal correspondence from 2015 and 2016 revealed deep concerns about Google losing its lead in autonomous cars.

In his February 2015 email to co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the head of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, wrote that Uber was acquiring people who he had suggested Google hire more than a year earlier “but was denied the opportunity to do so”.

“We have a choice between being the headline or the footnote in history’s book on the next revolution in transportation,” said Urmson, according to court filings by Uber. Urmson left Google in August 2016.

In November 2015, Google research executive Astro Teller emailed the incoming head of the car project, John Krafcik, to warn that Page was concerned about Levandowski moving to rivals.

Levandowski emailed Page two months later arguing that Google was “losing our tech advantage fast”.

Dmitri Dolgov, a top executive at Google and Waymo, wrote in an internal email on August 19, 2016 that there were other “interesting and plentiful exit opportunities”. Dolgov cited initiatives of Baidu, ride-hailing companies Didi Chuxing and Lyft, and carmakers. He said those efforts make Google’s car project “look less competitive from the financial perspective, so I think we should be seriously concerned”.

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Waymo is seeking damages against Uber and a court order preventing the ride-hailing service from using eight of its trade secrets.

In December last year, Baidu accused Wang Jing, the former general manager of its autonomous driving unit, and his start-up JingChi of stealing self-driving technology from China’s largest online search provider.

Baidu’s lawsuit, which was filed in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court, has demanded JingChi and its 52-year-old chief executive, Wang, to cease using the technology it purportedly stole, as well as pay the company 50 million yuan (US$7.9 million) and bear all legal costs.

Wang has described Baidu’s lawsuit as “entirely groundless”.

JingChi recently started a three-month public trial of its fleet of self-driving cars in the southern coastal city of Guangzhou.

Additional reporting by Bien Perez