Alphabet accuses Uber of stealing self-driving car technology

Waymo unveiling a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan 8, 2017.
Waymo unveiling a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan 8, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Alphabet Inc's self-driving car business, Waymo, sued Uber Technologies for stealing trade secrets in the development of autonomous cars, accelerating an already-heated rivalry over the nascent technology.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday (Feb 23) in San Francisco federal court, accuses several employees of Otto, a self-driving startup Uber acquired in July, of lifting technical information from Google's autonomous car project. Waymo claims that Otto's "calculated theft" of Alphabet's technology earned Otto's employees more than US$500 million (S$703.7 million).

"Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition," Waymo said in the suit. "Instead, 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."

A representative from Uber didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Waymo was inadvertently copied on an e-mail from one of its vendors, which had an attachment showing an Uber LiDAR circuit board that had a striking resemblance to Waymo's design, according to the complaint.

Anthony Levandowski, a former manager at Alphabet's self-driving car unit, downloaded more than 14,000 proprietary and confidential files before quitting, including the LiDAR circuit board designs, according to the complaint.

"Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company," Waymo wrote in a blog post explaining the suit.

Levandowski went on to form Otto in May 2016, which planned to develop hardware and software for autonomous vehicles. After six months of official existence, Otto was acquired by Uber for US$680 million, and Levandowski was named vice president in charge of Uber's self-driving car project, according to the complaint.

Alphabet's venture capital arm, GV - formerly known as Google Ventures - is an early backer of Uber.

Tesla Motors, meanwhile, is suing the former head of its Autopilot program for stealing confidential information to use in a startup he founded with a former Google car engineer. The electric carmaker accused Sterling Anderson of starting working last summer on the autonomous car venture, Aurora Innovation, that he set up with Chris Urmson, the former head of Google's self-driving car project. Anderson left Tesla in December.