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Leon Kaye headshot

Google and Uber Are In An Epic Legal Fight Over Self-Driving Car Technology

By Leon Kaye

Last week Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, filed a lawsuit against Uber in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California. Waymo LLC, Google’s former self-driving car project that is now an independent company under the Alphabet corporate umbrella, accused Uber of patent infringement, unfair competition and stealing trade secrets.

Court filings submitted to the San Francisco federal court allege that former Google employees left the company to found Otto, which was acquired by Uber last August for $680 million. The result, insist attorneys representing Alphabet, Google and Waymo, was a “calculated theft” that earned Otto employees $500 million and allowed Uber to “revive a stalled (autonomous car) program, all at Waymo’s expense.”

At the heart of the litigation is a tug-of-war over the companies’ LiDAR (light detection and ranging) systems. LiDAR is a laser-based scanning and mapping technology that reflects laser beams off objects in order to generate real-time, three-dimensional images. These systems can be applied to a bevy of settings, including in agriculture to determine what land is in most need of phosphates; in archaeology, to find objects otherwise obscured by ground cover; and by the military for weapons systems and aerial operations.

But it is their role as the “brains” of self-driving cars for which LiDAR is critical in order for these vehicles to navigate safely. Further development of this technology -- which emits laser beams in order to measure the shape and speed of other cars, vehicles and bicyclists -- will fuel what analysts say could eventually become a trillion-dollar industry.

As Bloomberg reported late last week, it took Waymo seven years to design its LiDAR system, while somehow Otto and Uber were able to develop a similar technology within nine months.

Waymo says this is because a former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 files related to the company’s LiDAR systems and circuit board designs six weeks before he left the company last year. Levandowski then allegedly wiped his company-issued laptop clean and reformatted it in order to erase any forensic evidence that almost 10 gigabytes of company information were pilfered. “Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company,” the company wrote in a recent blog post.

Levandowski has repeatedly denied that he stole any intellectual property from Google and Waymo. And in a statement to Business Insider, Uber said Google’s accusations are without merit, dismissing them as “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”

Google’s lawsuit against Uber comes while the ridesharing giant suffered plenty of pitfalls, many of them self-inflicted, over the past two months.

In January, #DeleteUber trended all over social media as the company was accused of trying to profit while other transportation companies pushed for a general strike due to the Donald Trump administration’s travel ban. Many of the company’s former customers were also furious over the reported ties between Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and the Trump White House. And that angst continued even after Kalanick quit Trump’s economic advisory panel.

Then last week, Uber dominated much of the news cycle for all the wrong reasons as accusations of sexual harassment rocked the company. Meanwhile, many Uber employees have reportedly been commiserating about the company’s work culture on chatting apps such as Blind as critics of the technology sector say Uber’s foibles are rampant throughout the industry.

The litigation within the nascent autonomous vehicles industry is analogous to the legal fistfights between the smartphone giants Samsung and Apple. As a sector grows and becomes more lucrative, companies will deploy any strategies they can to increase their clout in a market or at least stay relevant.

After all, Google and Uber are hardly alone when it comes to accusing competitors of underhanded dealings and unfair business practices. Last month, for example, Tesla Motors sued a former manager for allegedly poaching some of its employees while launching his own startup venture.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson/Wiki Commons

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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