Google and Uber: From ‘Brothers’ to Enemies

Google parent company Alphabet Inc. (GOOG) once had a familial relationship with on-demand transportation giant Uber Technologies, according to the tech unicorn's former CEO, Travis Kalanick. 

In testimony at the trade secrets trial between Uber and Google-owned Waymo, Kalanick recalls the initial relationship “like big brother and little brother"—that is, until Uber got into ride-sharing. Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car division, which was spun out from Google in 2016, is dueling it out in court with its Silicon Valley peer this week in San Francisco. 

In 2013, global search giant Google led an investment in Kalanick's then-four-year-old startup. In the trial, which kicked off on Monday, Google's Waymo is making its case that former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski stole confidential files before leaving the company to found a self-driving startup that was bought by Uber in 2016. The investigation into the alledged trade-secret theft began in late 2016, when Waymo accidently received an email from a supplier containing an attachment detailing Uber's LiDAR circuit board, which it claims was built off its own model.  

Soured Relationships

The real tension between the two "brothers" was intensifying before the email, however, according to Uber's CEO. Shortly after Uber hired a team from Carnegie Mellon University to work on self-driving cars, Kalanick suggested there was a phone call in which Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page accused him of taking the company's people and IP. Kalanick, who was ousted from Uber in June after a series of scandals, quickly started to frustrate his "mentees" at Google who had been working on self-driving cars since 2009. 

Waymo estimates the damages on the case at approximately $1.9 billion. A jury will ultimately decide whether the 14,000 documents Levandowski downloaded before leaving Waymo in 2015 were trade secrets and not common knowledge and whether Uber improperly acquired them, used them and benefited from them.  

The decision will help define the young and booming autonomous vehicle space where competition runs rampant among tech giants, traditional automakers and a wave of new niche startups. It also brings light to the personal nature of the particular lawsuit, in which Google's $258 million bet on a small startup turned sour, helping create one of its most powerful rivals in a key industry. (See also: Amazon Inching Ahead in Competition With Alphabet.)

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