By Mark Fairlie
Trial proceedings have begun in San Francisco for the most high-profile court case of 2018: Uber Vs. Google.
This comes almost a year after Google’s self-driving car project Waymo initially filed their lawsuit against the popular ride-sharing firm Uber.
Uber has been accused of stealing and using Waymo’s trade secrets, such as their navigation system and “Lidar”, a light detection and ranging technology that can be used to help autonomous cars understand their surroundings.
If they lose in court, Uber could be forced to pay out compensation of hundreds of millions of dollars. However, the company could be even more severely affected in the long run should Waymo call for an injunction to halt or hinder their self-driving research.
For a company who has previously claimed that leading the way in autonomous driving tech was critical to their survival, should their research be stopped, Waymo could rise as the new leader in this sector.
What has Uber been accused of?
Former Google employee and renowned mind in autonomous research, Anthony Levandowski, worked on Waymo’s self-driving programme from its formation in 2009 until 2016.
In January 2016 he started his own autonomous trucking company, Otto. Then, after just a few months, Otto was taken over by Uber in a $680 million deal. Levandowski was included in the agreement, moving across to the parent company and helping to form the Uber self-driving division.
However, Waymo has since claimed that when Levandowski left Google, he took with him more than 14,000 confidential documents containing blueprints and technical information for their Lidar technology.
The subsidiary of Google has also accused Mr Levandowski and Uber of conspiring the entire time in order to take Waymo’s trade secrets.
Waymo’s lawyer, Charles Verhoeven, alleges that Otto was a “fake company” created to help Levandowski transfer to Uber without causing suspicion, taking Google’s technology with him.
Whilst Uber has denied this claim, they have not disputed the statement that documents were indeed taken from Waymo by Mr Levandowski. Instead, they argue that they have not gained anything from them.
Now, Waymo must instead prove not just that Uber were in possession of their secrets, but that they intended to use them to gain a competitive advantage in their field.
Uber and Waymo are just two of many hundreds of technology companies competing to create the best fleet of self-driving cars. Verhoeven told the jury that Waymo were “bringing this case because Uber is cheating. They took our technology … to win this race at all costs.”
What is said to have been stolen?
When Waymo first announced that they would be suing Uber, they claimed that 121 secrets and patents had been stolen. Since then, they have reduced this allegation to just eight.
They have said this reduction was made in order to address only the most significant claims in order to avoid a long, drawn-out trial. Uber has publicly disagreed with this statement.
An Uber spokesperson stated that “Waymo’s retreat on three of their four patent claims is yet another sign that they have overpromised and can’t deliver.”
They went on to say that Waymo had uncovered “zero evidence” of the 14,000 files they claimed Uber had stolen and that they had even acknowledged that Uber’s LiDAR design was actually very different to their own.
“Faced with this hard truth, Waymo has resorted to floating conspiracy theories not rooted in fact, doing everything they can to put the focus on sensation rather than substance,” says Uber.
What will happen in the court case?
During the course of this week, Waymo will make their case. After which, Uber will be given the opportunity to defend themselves. The trial is thought to last around three weeks.
Throughout the case, Levandowski has chosen to “plead the Fifth”. This is a protection under the American constitution that allows people to not say anything that may incriminate themselves. Due to this, Uber has fired Levandowski.
It is believed Uber will continue to argue that whilst Levandowski may have taken the documents, they were not used on any of Uber’s self-driving experiments.
Uber’s attorney, Bill Carmondy, said in court “There is no connection whatsoever between any files he downloaded … and what’s in here.
“There’s not a single piece of Google proprietary information at Uber,” he added. “Nothing, zero, period.”
If the jury rules that Uber both stole and used Waymo’s trade secrets, they could be made to pay more than $1 billion in damages.