Alphabet claims Uber stole self-driving tech in lawsuit

A Google self-driving car manoeuvring through the streets of Washington, DC.
A Google self-driving car manoeuvring through the streets of Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO • The race to develop self-driving vehicles took a new turn when Google's parent company, Alphabet, filed a lawsuit yesterday against Uber, accusing it of stealing technology.

Alphabet contends that a manager at its autonomous car subsidiary, Waymo, took technical data with him when he left to launch a competing venture that went on to become Otto, Uber's self-driving vehicle unit, in a reported US$680 million (S$954 million) deal.

"Otto and Uber have taken Waymo's intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time and expense of independently developing their own technology," Waymo said in a San Francisco federal court filing.

It is calling for a trial to stop Otto and Uber from using what it says is patented technology.

Waymo also wants unspecified damages in what it described in court documents as "an action for trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition".

The company argued that a "calculated theft" of its technology "reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo's expense".

Responding to an Agence France-Presse request for comment, an Uber spokesman said in an e-mail message that "we take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully".

The ride-sharing service acquired the commercial transport-focused tech start-up Otto last year as it pressed ahead with its pursuit of self-driving technology. Mr Anthony Levandowski, a co-founder of Otto, a 90-person start-up, was put in charge of Uber's efforts to develop self-driving technology for personal driving, delivery and trucking.

Waymo's lawsuit contends that Mr Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 proprietary files from a highly confidential design server to a laptop in December 2015.

The suit is focused on proprietary information about Lidar sensors, which use lasers to scan and essentially enable vehicles to "see" what is around them, according to the lawsuit.

The information stored on the Waymo server wound up at Otto, it says.

After downloading confidential information, Mr Levandowski attended meetings with high-level executives at Uber's headquarters in January last year, the lawsuit contends.

By the end of that month, Mr Levandowski had officially formed a venture that would become Otto and resigned from Waymo, according to the court filing.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Alphabet claims Uber stole self-driving tech in lawsuit'. Print Edition | Subscribe