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Google sues Uber over 'self-driving tech theft'

Waymo self driving car

By Wade O’Leary

The fight for supremacy in the world of driverless vehicles has turned nasty with Google spin-off Waymo suing Uber and their self-driving truck company Otto over the alleged theft of patented technology.

The dispute centres on former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, who now works for Uber in the Otto division, and the allegation that “six weeks before his resignation … (he) downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s lidar and circuit board”.

Lidar is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging and can be understood as next-generation radar that bounces millions of laser pulses off targets or obstacles to measure distance, allowing an attached computer to develop a complex map of the location it is scanning.

It is key to allowing a driverless vehicle to ‘see’ where it is going and be able to navigate without human intervention by measuring the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians.

Waymo claims that while it had been developing its own lidar technology since 2009, Uber was still relying on a third-party system and was “more than five years behind in the race to develop vehicle automation technology suitable for the mass market” at the time of Levandowski’s defection.

But in a recent email from a supplier, Waymo says it “found machine drawings of what was purported to be Uber’s lidar circuit board – except its design bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s unique lidar design”.

“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,” the company said in a statement on medium.com.

Waymo also alleges that other former employees who are now working for Uber and Otto downloaded confidential information including supplier lists, manufacturing details and technical information.

A lawsuit filed in a federal court in California alleges trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition.

Neither Uber nor Otto had publicly responded to the action at time of publication.

It is in stark contrast to the previous relationship between the two parent companies, which included a US$258 million investment in Uber by Google in 2013.

But as Waymo representatives note in the opening remarks of the complaint: “Self-driving cars have the potential to transform mobility for millions of people as well as become a trillion-dollar industry.”

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