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Autonomous minivan
Waymo has modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans for autonomous driving. (Fiat Chrysler Photo)

Google self-driving car spinout Waymo has filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco against Uber, alleging that former Google engineers stole intellectual property on their way out the door before starting a new company Otto, which was later acquired by Uber and now plays a big role in its self-driving vehicle research.

The suit specifically calls out Anthony Levandowski, who was influential in Google’s self-driving car efforts and later left the company to co-found Otto, a venture working on self-driving trucks. Uber acquired Otto last year for $680 million and made Levandowski the head of its self-driving vehicle efforts.

Waymo alleges that before leaving Google, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 confidential and proprietary files related to things like circuit boards that mount on vehicles and contain “laser-based scanning and mapping technology that uses the reflection of laser beams off objects to create a real-time 3D image of the world,” according to court documents. The lawsuit alleges that several other Google employees followed Levandowski to Otto and downloaded even more confidential files, such as supplier lists and manufacturing details, before leaving the company.

About two months after downloading the files, in January 2016 the lawsuit alleges that Levandowski met with high-level Uber officials. Two weeks later he left Google without notice, according to court documents, and a couple days after that, he formed Otto. Uber acquired the company approximately six months later.

Uber self-driving
An Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh. (Uber Photo)

Waymo said it became aware of the issue after it was inadvertently copied on an email from a vendor about Uber driverless car circuit boards that looked very similar to the ones Waymo produced and patented. Waymo/Google confirmed their suspicions through a public records request with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Department of Motor Vehicles in February 2016.

Here is how Waymo, which spun out of Google late last year, characterized the case in court documents:

Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition. Instead, 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. 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.

An Uber spokesperson issued this statement in response to the lawsuit: “We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully.”

Waymo claims it is the pioneer of the driverless vehicle industry, with research dating back to 2009. Waymo said its driverless cars have more than 2.5 million miles on public roads, which the company said represents more than 300 years of human driving experience.

Waymo alleges that Uber was late to get into the driverless car game, and its efforts to build its own technology, with the help of a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, were not progressing quickly enough. So rather than compete with Waymo, the lawsuit alleges, Uber bought up Otto and started calling laser-based sensor technology developed by Google and Waymo its own.

Waymo said it is suing to stop Uber from continuing to use its designs, get its trade secrets back, obtain compensation and ensure public trust in the self-driving vehicle market, an industry Waymo claims is on the cusp of tremendous growth.

“Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly,” Waymo wrote in a post on Medium describing the lawsuit. “However, given the overwhelming facts that our technology has been stolen, we have no choice but to defend our investment and development of this unique technology.

Waymo-Uber lawsuit by Nat Levy on Scribd

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