Errant email lands Uber in court

On Dec. 13, a group email with a curious name popped into the inbox of a Waymo employee. It was titled “OTTO FILES,” and had been sent by one of Waymo’s lidar suppliers, inadvertently including Waymo in on the discussion.

The email and its attachments were the final piece of evidence Waymo, the self-driving car company spun off from Google late last year, felt it needed to file a lawsuit against Otto, an autonomous driving company for trucks, and its parent company Uber.

Levandowski: Suspected of stealing files

Otto was founded on Jan. 15, 2016, by then-Google employee Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski had been with Google since April 2007, and had been working on the self-driving car project since the beginning. Waymo said it has evidence Levandowski began methodically downloading 14,000 confidential files a month before leaving the company. 

If Waymo’s claims prove true, Uber could be facing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and civil damages. Theft of trade secrets can also carry a criminal charge, as a violation of the Lanham Act, which can carry a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and fines. 

Waymo claims the email files it saw contained a lidar circuit board diagram that “bears a striking resemblance” to the lidar designs Waymo has developed in-house. The company also says it has evidence that employees who left Waymo to join Levandowski at Otto also downloaded confidential files. 

“We believe these actions were part of a concerted plan to steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property,” the company wrote in a blog post. 

Eric Meyhofer, director of hardware engineering for Uber, said the company is preparing a public statement on the lawsuit. “I’m super confident that the truth will come out,” he said. 

Uber sees the lawsuit as a distraction away from building autonomous technology, Meyhofer said, arguing the lawsuit was a tactic Waymo is using to distract Uber off its mission. “That’s the big danger of these allegations: It forces us to focus on these things, which means we’re not focusing on building our product,” he told Automotive News

Waymo’s lidar system has been a point of pride for the company, which announced in January at the Detroit auto show that it had developed its technology in-house, reducing costs by more than 90 percent. 

In the lawsuit, Waymo laid out several unique ways it designs its lidar systems. Regular lidar, which uses laser beams to determine how far away things are and how fast they are moving, needs two lenses to transmit the laser beams. Waymo came up with a system that uses just one lens, it said. It also simplified the design for laser diode firing, and found a way to compress the light beams, increasing the resolution of the images produced by lasers. 

The company said it also developed a lot of technology or processes that could never be used commercially, but those “dead-end designs” help inform Waymo’s current research and development. 

The lawsuit is not the first claim of corporate espionage among self-driving technology companies. In January, Tesla Inc. sued its former head of Autopilot, Sterling Anderson, and ex-Google employee Chris Urmson, alleging they stole company information to start their own self-driving company.

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