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Google's parent company says Uber stole its self-driving tech

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Alphabet’s self-driving unit Waymo claims a former employee downloaded proprietary designs


From the #DeleteUber movement to a horrifying workplace harassment story, Uber has not had the best start to its year, from a public relations perspective. Now add one more demerit against the ride-hailing giant: A lawsuit from Google’s self-driving unit Waymo, alleging Uber stole its autonomous vehicle secrets.

Waymo’s lawsuit actually names both Uber and Otto, the self-driving truck company that Uber purchased in 2016. In the suit, it alleges that former Google employee Anthony Levandowski downloaded proprietary design files, blueprints, and testing documentation for Waymo’s self-driving car technology before he left the company to found Otto.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Levandowski has been in the spotlight recently in his new role at Uber, which he joined when Otto was acquired. As the head of Uber’s self-driving-car program, Levandowski has been defending the program after its very public departure from San Francisco and recent clashes with Pittsburgh’s mayor.

What exactly did Levandowski supposedly steal? It’s one of the most important parts of any self-driving system—and in Waymo’s case, it’s supposed to be the key technology that makes Waymo’s cars much safer than any other self-driving cars on the road:

One of the most powerful parts of our self-driving technology is our custom-built LiDAR — or “Light Detection and Ranging.” LiDAR works by bouncing millions of laser beams off surrounding objects and measuring how long it takes for the light to reflect, painting a 3D picture of the world. LiDAR is critical to detecting and measuring the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians.

Hundreds of Waymo engineers have spent thousands of hours, and our company has invested millions of dollars to design a highly specialized and unique LiDAR system. Waymo engineers have driven down the cost of LiDAR dramatically even as we’ve improved the quality and reliability of its performance. The configuration and specifications of our LiDAR sensors are unique to Waymo. Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.

Waymo concluded that Levandowski’s actions were part of a “concerted plan to steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property.” What’s more, as Waymo’s statement notes, Google’s parent company Alphabet has worked with Uber as a partner for many years, including Uber as an option for its Google Maps directions, for example.

Uber has called the case “baseless” and vowed to defend itself in court. Still, this is not the kind of news that would make potential customers (or former customers, as it may more likely be) regain their confidence in Uber. And with Levandowski in charge of the already-controversial self-driving vehicle programs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco’s former fleet that’s been relocated to Arizona, that doesn’t bode well for Uber’s potential expansion into other cities.

Autonomous technology is only going to be deployed if companies come to the table with the smartest technology on the market and a whole lot of trust. If this lawsuit is true, than Uber has neither of those critical elements needed to keep our cities safe.