Waymo accuses Uber of 'cheating' as trade secrets trial begins

Waymo is accusing Uber of "cheating" to get ahead in the self-driving car race.The companies headed to court o...

Posted: Feb. 6, 2018 8:05 AM
Updated: Feb. 6, 2018 8:05 AM

Waymo is accusing Uber of "cheating" to get ahead in the self-driving car race.

The companies headed to court on Monday in San Francisco over a lawsuit that alleged Uber used Waymo's existing autonomous vehicle technology to further its own development.

During opening remarks, Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven said evidence will show a scheme between Uber executives and a former Google engineer to bring proprietary tech to Uber.

Waymo was formerly a self-driving car division within Google. It later spun off into its own company under Alphabet.

The investigation into potential trade-secret theft began in late 2016 when Waymo accidentally received an email from a self-driving technology supplier containing an attachment detailing Uber's LiDAR circuit board. Waymo claimed it looked suspiciously like its own design.

The trial commenced before Judge William Alsup. Press, attorneys, and spectators packed the courthouse. The trial is expected to take two weeks.

"This is about two competitors, where one competitor decided they needed to win at all costs," Verhoeven said. "Losing was not an option."

Related: Uber and Waymo head to court over trade secrets

Verhoeven argued that Uber executives, including former CEO Travis Kalanick, were aware that former Anthony Levandowski, previously a Google self-driving car engineer, brought trade secrets to Uber. Waymo alleged Levandowski stole 14,000 files containing secret self-driving car data from Google before abruptly quitting to start a new company. Levandowski founded a self-driving truck company called Otto in January 2016. Uber then bought Otto for $680 million in August 2016.

"The evidence is going to show a trail of a knowing effort to induce Mr. Levandowski from Waymo, take the trade secret tech he'd already developed, and bring it to Uber," Verhoeven said.

Verhoeven presented evidence to the jury including meeting notes from John Bares, former manager in Uber's self-driving car division, that said Kalanick's priorities included "Cheat codes. Find them. Use them."

Other evidence Verhoeven presented included meetings between Levandowski and Kalanick the same day Levandowski downloaded data from Google, and Levandowski suggesting to his cofounder they should cover digital tracks by using Slack and iMessage.

Uber lawyers distanced the company from Levandowski during opening remarks, informing jurors he is no longer with the company. He was fired from Uber in May 2017 after failing to cooperate with the company.

In an opening statement for Uber, attorney Bill Carmody said "Uber regrets ever bringing Levandowski on board. For all his time at Uber, all Uber has to show for Levandowski is this lawsuit."

Uber's lawyer read an email from a Google engineer to Waymo attorneys in October 2016 during their investigation. It said the technology Levandowski took from Waymo is not critical for its self-driving efforts.

"It's all electronics designs, schematics and PCB layouts and the component library for their creation," the email said. "It was considered low-value enough that we considered hosting it off Google infrastructure."

Related: Americans are slowly warming up to self-driving cars

But Uber denied using proprietary Waymo technology and said it has only used its own LiDAR tech in developing self-driving cars. (LiDAR stands for "Light Detection and Ranging" and lets self-driving cars "see" objects such as people, cyclists, and driving lanes in its path.)

Carmody said Waymo was threatened by its rival hiring top talent from the robotics and autonomous car industry.

During Monday's trial, the courtroom was briefly closed to the public as attorneys for the companies discussed the trade secrets in question with the jury.

Jurors must decide whether Uber knowingly used these trade secrets to develop self-driving cars.

"I want to tell you right up front, it didn't happen. There's no conspiracy; there's no cheating," Carmody told the jury in his opening statement on Monday. "The point that's so fundamental to this is that Waymo doesn't own every idea in its LiDAR."

Waymo CEO John Krafcik, who was in the courtroom, is expected to testify on Monday.

Kalanick is also expected to testify later this week and is on the witness list for both parties.

Before proceedings began, Judge Alsup said no one would be getting special treatment in the trial.

"Someone who has a witness who thinks he's important wanted a private room: No," he said without naming anyone specific. "No one on either side gets a private room just because they're famous."

Levandowski is also on the prospective witness list. He was ordered to turn over documents and other information related to the case in March. However, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

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