Uber filed its much-anticipated response to the bombshell lawsuit from Alphabet’s Waymo on Friday, arguing that it couldn’t have stolen the self-driving secrets Waymo claims because Uber is still using off-the-shelf technology for its autonomous vehicles. Uber says that the Google spinoff’s lawsuit is “a misfire,” but in doing so, the combative ride-hailing company was forced to make a begrudging admission: that Google’s self-driving cars are far superior to its own.
Waymo filed the explosive lawsuit in late February, claiming that Anthony Levandowski, a former Google engineer and current top executive at Uber, had stolen 14,000 confidential documents before leaving Google. According to Waymo, Levandowski used the stolen technology to entice Uber into buying his self-driving truck startup Otto for $680 million six months after it launched in 2016. Uber called the allegation “baseless,” but is only today filing a detailed response.
“Waymo’s injunction motion is a misfire: there is no evidence that any of the 14,000 files in question ever touched Uber’s servers, and Waymo’s assertion that our multi-lens LIDAR is the same as their single-lens LIDAR is clearly false,” said Angella Padilla, general counsel to Uber, in a statement. “If Waymo genuinely thought that Uber was using its secrets, it would not have waited more than five months to seek an injunction. Waymo doesn’t meet the high bar for an injunction, which would stifle our independent innovation — probably Waymo’s goal in the first place.”
Uber currently has dozens of driverless vehicles — Volvo XC90 SUVs equipped with LIDAR sensors, cameras, and other autonomous tech — picking up passengers in Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona, (and perhaps San Francisco soon enough). Waymo has requested an injunction against Uber from using any of its allegedly stolen self-driving technology, which could effectively put the boot on Uber’s driverless cars.
But in its response to the injunction request, Uber says Waymo has not met the threshold necessary for the court to approve such a request. First of all, Uber says that only one of the 14,000 documents ended up at Uber. In a previous filing, Uber said it searched Levandowski’s computer, in addition to two other former Alphabet employees named in the suit, and the computers of “randomly selected” employees as part of its inquiry. One of the allegedly stolen documents turned up, but Waymo said Uber’s efforts were insufficient. The judge on the case agreed and ordered Uber to look more carefully.
But in today’s filing, Uber says that Waymo’s assumptions about its self-driving technology are flat out wrong. Uber says it began developing its LIDAR technology almost a year before Levandowski was hired at Uber. Furthermore, the ride-hail company says it uses multi-lens LIDAR sensors, not the single-lens sensor designs Waymo claims were stolen, and that the sensors it uses are purchased off-the-shelf from Velodyne, a top manufacturer of the technology. In its original lawsuit, Waymo says the LIDAR design in question was accidentally sent to one of its employees in a mistakenly CC’d email from Uber.
The allegations put forward by Waymo arguably represent the biggest threat to Uber’s long-term financial survival — more so than the harassment scandal or any of the other controversies that have enveloped the company in recent months. If Uber can eventually transition to a majority driverless fleet, it can slash fares for customers, drive up demand, and increase its own profits. But if Waymo can prove that Uber is using stolen technology, that future could be imperiled. And Uber’s ability to justify its huge $70 billion valuation could take a serious hit.
“Uber’s assertion that they’ve never touched the 14,000 stolen files is disingenuous at best, given their refusal to look in the most obvious place: the computers and devices owned by the head of their self-driving program,” a spokesperson for Waymo said in a statement. “We’re asking the court to step in based on clear evidence that Uber is using, or plans to use, our trade secrets to develop their LIDAR technology, as seen in both circuit board blueprints and filings in the State of Nevada.”
Things are still looking pretty bleak for Uber. Levandowski recently invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, against the advice of Uber’s lawyers. A redaction mistake in a recent filing revealed that Lior Ron, Levandowski’s co-founder in Otto, has also been implicated in the lawsuit.
Ultimately, Uber wants to move the case into arbitration, arguing that since Waymo’s case centers on the action of Levandowski, a former employee, it should be subject to the arbitration agreement as part of his employee contract. The move is also strategic, as it would allow Uber to avoid a costly and embarrassing jury trial. That trial is tentatively scheduled to commence this October.