Google Just Sued Uber for Stealing Its Self-Driving Car Technology

This hasn’t been Uber’s week. After facing allegations of ignoring reports of discrimination and sexism in the workplace by a former engineer, compounded by more tales of mismanagement and harassment by dozens of current and former employees and a stern condemnation by early investors, Uber now has one more thing to worry about. Waymo, the self-driving-car project owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has filed a lawsuit against Otto, the self-driving-truck start-up Uber bought last year, accusing its co-founder, former Google self-driving-car engineer Anthony Levandowski, of stealing Waymo’s proprietary design of its self-driving-car system and taking it to Uber.
Waymo names both Uber and Otto as defendants in its suit. According to the Google-owned subsidiary, a team of ex-Google engineers, including Levandowski, stole Waymo’s design for its LIDAR sensors—laser sensors that autonomous vehicles use to map out the area around them. “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,” Waymo said in a blog post about its lawsuit. “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.”
Waymo claims that Levandowski, who sold his company to Uber for $680 million just months after its initial launch, downloaded over 14,000 files when he was still employed by Google, and took them with him to start Otto. “The sudden resignations from Waymo, Otto’s quick public launch with Mr. Levandowski at the helm, and Uber’s near-immediate acquisition of Otto for more than half a billion dollars all caused Waymo grave concern regarding the possible misuse of its intellectual property,” Waymo wrote in its suit. According to the company’s complaint, it was an e-mail sent to Waymo in error, which included an attachment called “OTTO FILES” containing drawings for LIDAR sensors that “bore a striking resemblance” to Waymo’s own proprietary sensors that confirmed its suspicions that Levandowski had taken the files.
“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” an Uber spokesperson told the Hive in a statement.
The self-driving-vehicle space is increasingly crowded, and though it perhaps initially seemed like Google and Uber could be allies (Google Ventures invested in Uber four years ago, and Uber’s mapping technology was initially reliant, in part, on Google’s own), the two companies’ relationship turned adversarial when Uber began developing its own self-driving technology. After Uber bought Otto last year, Google chief legal officer and head of corporate development David Drummond removed himself from Uber’s board.