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Waymo sues Uber and subsidiary Otto over alleged digital theft of intellectual property

Waymo v Otto Uber

Waymo, the autonomous car developer operated by Google parent company Alphabet, has filed suit against Uber and its subsidiary Otto for theft of trade secrets and patent infringement, alleging that Otto's founder Anthony Levandowski stole intellectual property from Waymo while he was still an employee there.

In a complaint filed in a Northern Californian U.S. District Court on Thursday, attorneys for Waymo claimed that Otto and Uber violated the U.S. Defense of Trade Secrets Act, California's Uniform Trade Secret Act, and the state's Business and Professions Code, as well as infringed on three separate patents. The plaintiff has demanded a jury trial and is seeking unspecified damages and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit largely centers around proprietary laser scanning and mapping technology that Waymo developed when it was originally known as the Google self-driving car project. Called LiDAR, the technology helps self-driving vehicles "see" in 360 degrees by scanning surrounding environments and measuring the reflection of laser beams off of objects.

According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 11, 2015, Levandowski, then a manager with Waymo, installed special software on his company laptop to access a highly privileged design server and personally downloaded 14,000 confidential files holding 9.7 GBs of proprietary data, including specs for LiDAR circuit boards. The suit alleges that Levandowski took steps to conceal his activities, including wiping his laptop.

The plaintiff also laid out the following timeline: On Jan. 16, 2016, Levandowski formed the first of two companies that would collectively come to be known as Otto, and subsequently resigned from Waymo on Jan. 27. Otto publicly launched in May 2016, and was quickly acquired by Uber in August, although the plaintiff alleges that Levandowski had already been meeting with Uber executives before he resigned from his former company.

The complaint further asserts that Waymo (originally as Google) has been developing autonomous car technology since 2009, while Uber was a late entry into the competitive field, forming a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in February 2015 that at the time appeared to favor a third-party, off-the-shelf LiDAR system as opposed to one with an original, proprietary design. But then, on December 13, 2016, a LiDAR component vendor apparently mistakenly copied Waymo on an email that contained a machine drawing of an Otto-manufactured circuit board that looks very similar to and shares several unique characteristics with Waymo's patented technology, the suit continues.

"...Otto and Uber have taken Waymo's intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology," the complaint reads. "Ultimately, 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 plaintiff also claims that several more former Waymo employees who migrated to Otto/Uber, including a supply chain manager and hardware engineer, downloaded and stole additional trade secrets in the days leading up to their respective departures, including confidential "supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information."

An Uber spokesperson sent SC Media the following statement in response to the lawsuit: “We are incredibly proud of the progress that our team has made. We have reviewed Waymo's claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court. In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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