Waymo sues Otto and Uber over allegations of stolen self-driving car technology

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Self-driving car firm Waymo has filed a lawsuit against autonomous truckmaker Otto and its parent company Uber, claiming that the companies misappropriated Waymo’s trade secrets and infringed its self-driving car technology patents.

Waymo, whose parent company is Alphabet, alleges that former employees now working at Otto and Uber carried out the activities as “part of a concerted plan to steal Waymo’s trade secrets and intellectual property”.

In a blog post detailing its decision to bring the lawsuit, Waymo said that its former employee Anthony Levandowski – the founder of Otto and now head of Uber’s self-driving technology unit – had downloaded more than 14,000 “highly confidential and proprietary” design files for Waymo’s hardware systems, including blueprints and testing documentation.

According to Waymo, Levandowski “told colleagues that he had plans to “replicate” Waymo’s technology at a competitor”, while still working at the firm.

The claims centre on Waymo’s LiDAR systems – the laser technology used in self-driving vehicles to scan their surroundings and detect nearby objects and other road users.

According to the lawsuit, “Waymo’s substantial and sustained investment in LiDAR technology over nearly seven years” has helped to make its current technology the most advanced in the industry.

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 blog post announcing the lawsuit

Waymo said that it had received evidence of the alleged behaviour in an email sent “apparently inadvertently” to a team member by one of its LiDAR component suppliers.

An attachment to the email, showing machine drawings purportedly of Uber’s LiDAR circuit board, drew the company’s attention to “a striking resemblance” between the design of this circuit board and Waymo’s own self-driving sensor technology.

“The configuration and specifications of our LiDAR sensors are unique to Waymo,” said the company. “Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.”

Waymo noted in its complaint that by designing its own LiDAR systems, rather than purchasing them from third-party providers, it had “driven down costs, a well-known barrier to commercializing self-driving technology”.

In its lawsuit, Waymo is seeking an injunction to “stop the misappropriation of our designs, return all trade secret information and cease infringing on our patents”.

The self-driving car firm acknowledged that its parent company Alphabet has collaborated with Uber for a long time.

But “given the overwhelming facts that our technology has been stolen”, the company had no choice but to defend its investment, said Waymo.