Google's (GOOG) self-driving car unit Waymo has announced it is suing Uber, and the news has sent shock waves through the technology sector. According to the complaint filed in a California district court yesterday, Waymo is suing Uber for patent infringement and violation of the Defense of Trade Secrets Act, the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, and California's Business and Professions Code 17200.
In 2016, Uber bought a self-driving truck start-up named Otto, which was co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, a former employee of the Waymo self-driving unit. He was then appointed head of Uber's autonomous car division. It was founded in 2015 when the company established a center in Pittsburgh and hired a large number of researchers from nearby Carnegie Mellon. In August 2016, CEO Travis Kalanick confessed to Business Insider that Uber has to manufacture its own self-driving cars before its rival if it going to survive the automation wave. He said, "If we are not tied for first, then the person who is in first, or the enemy that's in first, then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing." (See also: Google Plans To Expand Carpool Service That Competes With Uber)
Waymo has been working on innovations in the field since 2009 and has logged more than 2 million miles of testing on public roads. LiDar (Light detection and Ranging) is one of their most promising technologies; millions of laser beams form a 3D portrait of the physical world around the car by measuring how long light takes to reflect off of surrounding objects. Waymo, in its note on the lawsuit, said that LiDar is "critical to detecting and measuring the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians." In short, the technology is key to ensuring road safety for autonomous vehicles.
Waymo said that it discovered the breach when a supplier inadvertently sent them drawings of Uber's own LiDar circuit board, which looked remarkably like Waymo's own. The lawsuit alleges that Levandowski downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. Levandowski is also accused of installing and using specialized software on the company laptop to steal trade secrets, blue prints, test files and other documents amounting to 9.7 GB of data. Waymo alleges that Levandowski then transferred the stolen data to an external hard disk and wiped the company laptop clean. Waymo also believes that other employees who moved from Waymo to Uber, have also downloaded confidential information regarding suppliers, manufacturers and technical details of the projects. (See also: How Uber Is Betting on AI)
In a statement, Uber said it takes the allegations seriously and will review the matter carefully. This lawsuit is the latest in a series of PR disasters that have come Uber's way this year. In January, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick received flak for joining President Trump's economic council, which started a #deleteuber campaign. Last week, a former employee detailed sexual harassment and discrimination she faced at the company in a blog that went viral. The New York Times followed up on her piece by interviewing more Uber employees who accused supervisors of homophobia and sexual misconduct. Earlier this week, Kalanick also apologized to employees for a lack of diversity, cultural failings and inadequate redressal of complaints at a meeting that was open to all Uber employees.