Uber-Waymo trial kicks off with claims of cheating and conspiracy theories

  • Uber-Waymo trial kicks off with claims of cheating and conspiracy theories

Uber-Waymo trial kicks off with claims of cheating and conspiracy theories

A Federal Court in San Francisco began hearings on Monday in a trade secrets lawsuit involving Alphabet's self-driving vehicle unit Waymo and ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies.

This case is being so keenly watched because it already represents an enormous argument in Silicon Valley, one about the cross-pollination of ideas and expertise. Like Waymo, Google is owned by Alphabet Inc., which led a US$1 billion ($1.3b) investment in Uber rival Lyft previous year. Or-worst case scenario for Uber-the judge to grant it an injunction that will shut down the ridehail company's self-driving vehicle arm, at least until Waymo gains back whatever head start it lost to Uber.

Carmody also used his time to distance Uber from Levandowski's behavior and association with Uber. Google's parent company Alphabet also owns Waymo.

Less glamorous but perhaps more useful will be the numerous Uber engineers who will be rigorously questioned about how they were directed by Mr Levandowski, and whether those stolen documents and secrets ever surfaced in Uber's work. Waymo says Levandowski conspired with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to use the purloined technology in Uber's own fleet of self-driving cars.

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.

"It is absolutely undisputed that Anthony Levandowski, he's a pioneer in the autonomous-vehicle business", Carmody said. The files include ones related to Waymo's secret LiDAR system - a laser-based scanning and mapping technology its driverless cars use to see their surroundings.

The crucial point Waymo will need to prove is that not only did Uber have the documents, but that it used them to gain an advantage of some kind.

He founded Otto after he left Google, which Uber then went on to buy for US$680mln less than a year later.

Judge William Alsup's comments, it has to be said, seem more closely aligned with Uber's interpretation.

"Is an engineer really supposed to get a frontal lobotomy before they go to the next job?"

There are not many people with the expertise that self-driving cars demand, so the line between an engineer's knowledge and a company's trade secret is thinner than usual.

"This case is about Waymo wanting to stop its biggest competitor, Uber", said Uber attorney Bill Carmody during Monday's opening statements in San Francisco. At issue is whether Uber stole valuable intellectual property when it hired Waymo's star engineer, Anthony Levandowski.

Uber unquestionably benefitted from Mr Levandowski's expertise.

The trial, which is scheduled to start with jury selection on Wednesday in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, in San Francisco, pits Waymo, a spin-off of Google and one of the most successful companies from the dot-com boom, against Uber, the ride-hailing giant and today's most valuable start-up. "For all this time at Uber, all Uber has to show for Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit". It's not clear whether that probe is focused on Uber or Levandowski, who has consistently exercised his right against self-incrimination and is expected to do so again if called to testify during the trial.

The first witness, Waymo CEO John Krafcik, said he felt a growing mistrust toward Levandowski. Kalanick, on the other hand, will testify later this week, and Waymo will have a chance to paint him as the villain they want the jury to see.

Levandowski was sacked from Uber past year for refusing to cooperate with investigators associated with the case.

"Their plan was to set up this fake company and purchase the fake company to look like they were doing something legitimate when they weren't", he said.