It’s been a good day on the streets and in the courts for Waymo, the driverless-car company that was spun out from Google as another Alphabet subsidiary last year.
First off, Waymo opened up its closed trial for autonomous driving in the Phoenix metropolitan area for public signup. This means Arizonans can apply to become “early riders” in the self-driving minivans and SUVs that Waymo is testing.
In a blog post, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said the rider pool will be expanded from a handful to hundreds over the course of the trial. “The goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco,” he said.
The cars will be made available for free to the households of applicants selected for the trial, with rides provided in an area including Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. To accommodate the extra riders, Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans will be expanded from 100 to 600 vehicles, Krafcik said.
Waymo has been putting the Pacificas through their paces in Phoenix and Mountain View, Calif. In addition, self-driving Lexus SUVs are being road-tested in Phoenix and Mountain View as well as in Kirkland, Wash., and Austin, Texas.
Meanwhile, on the legal front, Waymo has been battling the Uber ride-sharing company in federal court in San Francisco over a complex case that involves allegations of stolen intellectual property.
In its lawsuit, Waymo claims that one of the leaders of its self-driving car development program from the Google days, Anthony Levandowski, took 14,000 confidential files relating to the venture’s laser-scanning technology with him when he left to help create a self-driving truck company called Otto.
Uber acquired Otto last year for $680 million, and made Levandowski the leader of its self-driving car development effort. That effort is seen as key to Uber’s long-term business plan.
Levandowski has declined to answer questions about the confidential files, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. For its part, Uber has characterized Waymo’s claims as “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”
Waymo wants Uber to hand over a document relating to Uber’s acquisition of Otto, known as a privilege log, that could serve as evidence against Levandowski. But Levandowski argues that Uber’s handover of the document in its unredacted form would violate his Fifth Amendment rights.
When District Judge William Alsup ruled that the unredacted privilege log had to be turned over, Levandowski filed an appeal. Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Levandowski’s Fifth Amendment privilege couldn’t be extended to Uber, and that Uber would have to comply with the judge’s order.
Waymo and Uber have declined comment on today’s ruling, but it could open the way for Waymo to follow a trail of evidence back to the purportedly purloined files.
Next month, Alsup is due to rule on Waymo’s motion to have Levandowski barred from doing further work on Uber’s autonomous car program as the case continues.
However things turn out in future proceedings, the rulings so far are likely to have a dampening effect on Uber’s recruiting efforts in the fast-changing field of self-driving cars – and some argue that’s already a win for Waymo.