Waymo vs Uber Trial: A lawsuit that could determine the future of driverless cars

After a year of preparations, the lawsuit that could determine the future of the driverless car goes to trial this week. It’s Waymo vs Uber in what may be one of the biggest tech trials of the year.

Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is suing Uber for allegedly stealing trade secrets and infringing its patents. It claims that a top Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded thousands of secret Waymo documents and then joined Uber which used those secret designs in its own driverless cars.

The jury trial should last for a couple of weeks, with a verdict expected before the end of February. Here’s everything you need to know about one of the highest-profile clashes between tech rivals yet.

The allegations

Waymo alleges that three Google employees, including Anthony Levandowski, stole trade secrets relating to LiDAR technology – a kind of light-emitting radar that is used to help autonomous cars navigate. It alleges that Levandowski, who co-founded the Waymo project in 2009, downloaded some 14,000 secret documents before leaving to found his own autonomous trucking startup, Otto, in January 2016. In August 2016 Uber bought Otto for a reported $680 million (£484m) and made Levandowski vice-president of engineering at the firm.

According to Waymo, those LiDAR designs that Levandowski downloaded were subsequently used by Uber in their own driverless car projects. The crux of Uber’s defence will rely on it proving that it never used those stolen trade secrets in its own LiDAR systems.

What’s at stake?

Uber’s reputation has already been dragged through the mud in 2017, and a ruling against it has the potential to leave a sour taste in the mouth of its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who has promised to turn the company around. To avoid losing the case, Uber will have to prove that followed all proper legal processes when it hired Levandowski, and wasn’t hiring him because he had access to Waymo’s trade secrets.

There is also potentially a huge amount of cash on the line. While there is not yet an official damages figure named by Waymo, the company has mentioned a figure as high as $1.8 billion (£1.28bn). To work out the true figure, Waymo will need to have some sense of how large the self-driving market is and how crucial its LiDAR information was to Uber’s own self-driving cars.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, the legal fees for the trial are already mounting up. The two companies have already spent an estimated $300 million (£213m) in preparing for the case.

Who’s involved?

Waymo is the plaintiff in this case. Founded in 2009, as part of Google self-driving car project, it was officially spun out of Google in 2016 and is now owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. In November 2017, it become the first company to put fully self-driving cars on US roads without a safety driver.

On the other side of the courtroom is Uber. Founded in 2009, the taxi-hailing company started hiring autonomous vehicle researchers in 2015 and has a deal with Volvo that will see the company buy 24,000 self-driving cars between 2019 and 2021. The case will see Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick make his first public appearance since he was forced to resign in June 2017 amidst allegations that he had done nothing to stop the culture of sexual harassment at the company.

Caught between the two autonomous giants is Levandowski. The engineer helped Google become a leading force in the autonomous car world before leaving to found his own self-driving truck startup, Otto, which was subsequently bought by Uber. In March 2017, the presiding Judge on the case, William Alsup, ordered Levandowski to stop working on LiDAR for Uber and he was subsequently fired from the company for failing to cooperate in an internal investigation.

Although he is expected to take the stand in this case, it’s unlikely that Levandowski will say much. During his pre-trial deposition, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right more than 400 times, declining to give any information that may incriminate him. Bizarrely, Levandowski also recently founded a religious group he called Way of the Future, which worships an AI god.

What’s next?

The trial is expected to go on for at least a couple of weeks, and should wrap up by February 23. After that, the jury will go away and deliberate and should come back with a verdict before the end of February.

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