clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Stakes in the Waymo v. Uber Saga

Buckle up, the court case between Google’s self-driving car company and Uber is wild

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Waymo v. Uber trial is set to begin in October, and I’m already daydreaming about whom to cast in the inevitable prestige television film about the tech sector’s soapy robot-car-technology-theft showdown. While Waymo isn’t a household name, it’s the self-driving car division of Alphabet, a.k.a. Google, so this is an Apple v. Samsung–style showdown. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would be a legendary role for Jeremy Piven. Maybe Thomas Middleditch as beleaguered engineer Anthony Levandowski? He’s got the Silicon Valley snivel down pat.

Before going any further into fantasy casting, some background for this year’s most dramatic technology skirmish: Uber has been developing self-driving car technology, with a long-term plan to phase out drivers in place of a fleet of automated vehicles. Google established Waymo with the same intention: to develop a privately held fleet of driverless cars. Basically, it’s a frantic race to put drivers out of business. Last year, Uber purchased a self-driving truck company called Otto, which was cofounded by Anthony Levandowski, who had previously worked for Google. Uber then made Levandowski the head of its own self-driving technology division (that is, until Uber fired him Tuesday). Uber’s hiring of Levandowski raised hackles at Alphabet, because Levandowski had also been Google’s self-driving car technology senior engineer. Then, Waymo was accidentally CC’d on an email meant for Uber, which showed an image of a circuit board from one of Uber’s lidar sensors. According to Alphabet, this email provided evidence that Levandowski may have taken the proprietary technology he had been instrumental in developing at Google and started using it at Uber, possibly violating laws pertaining to trade secrets, since the circuit board so strongly resembled Waymo’s own.

Lidar technology is a type of laser sensor that both Waymo and Uber use in their self-driving cars as a tool to enable their cars to “see” their surroundings. It’s basically an imaging technology. Waymo describes it as “a laser-based scanning and mapping technology that uses the reflection of laser beams off objects to create a real-time 3-D image of the world” in its complaint against Uber, which stresses that Waymo’s particular type of lidar is uniquely cost-effective, and a major competitive advantage for the company.

If Waymo wins this case, it’ll give the company a leg up in establishing its cars and its technology.

Alphabet has accused Uber of stealing Waymo’s self-driving-car technology, and is seeking a halt to Uber’s self-driving car pilot, which would mean pulling the company’s test cars from California, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. “Uber and Levandwoski created a cover-up scheme for what they were doing, they created a cover-up for what Levandowski was doing,” Charles Verhoeven, the lead attorney representing Waymo, said during a hearing this May. “He created a cover-up company [Otto], then Uber decided to buy that company.”

The allegations are scathing, and the trial is set to begin in October, but the two companies are already embroiled in a series of intense public hearings, and it’s not looking good for Uber. During an April hearing, U.S. District Judge William Alsup called Waymo’s evidence that Levandowski had stolen files the most convincing he’d seen as a judge. At the same time, Waymo is still on the hunt for a smoking gun against Uber itself, so the trial is far from decided.

Self-driving vehicles are being tested across the country, but automated cars are still a new and rarely used technology, with both legal and technical hurdles preventing mainstream adoption. If Uber’s self-driving car program gets the kibosh, it won’t affect our day-to-day lives (unless the lawsuit ends up being so colossally damaging that it kills Uber, which is unlikely). But the outcome of this case will have a significant impact on Uber, Waymo, and other major tech players. Here they are, ranked from most to least (potentially) affected:

Trade Secret Lawyers

Trade secret lawyers are not at all harmed by this case, which is doing more to raise awareness for the existence of trade secret law than possibly any other case in recent years. It is an extremely lit time to be a trade secret lawyer. “Trade secret litigation is on an upswing right now,” New York University intellectual property professor Jeanne Fromer told me when I called to ask her about this case. When Congress recently passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act, it opened up the possibility for lots of federal lawsuits regarding trade secrets, like this one. Fromer said that, anecdotally, she has seen a marked rise in interest in trade secret law, so expect this case to kick off a new era of litigation.

Normal People

No matter who wins, driverless cars are likely to go from an experiment to a novelty to another means of transportation within our lifetimes. For people who work in any transit or transit-related industry, from driving to logistics to construction to policy-making, the rise of driverless cars is one of those rare Silicon Valley innovations that will actually disrupt how things are done. What this case could change is which company sends robo-chauffeurs to our houses, and how quickly driverless technology goes mainstream. Either way, this case is a win for ordinary people, because we get to sit here and watch the drama unfold.

Elon Musk and Tesla

Elon Musk and Tesla are not hurt at all either way this case shakes out, and they could possibly be put at an advantage if Uber loses. Uber losing this case wouldn’t be the greatest thing that has happened to Elon Musk this year — please keep in mind that he finally convinced Amber Heard to date him — but it would definitely be up there, since Tesla is also busy developing self-driving technology and having one of its main competitors sidelined would only help the world’s most stoic zipliner.

Chris Urmson and Other Driverless Car Upstarts

Having Uber temporarily hobbled would be good for any competitors, just as it would be good for Tesla. The only competitor who might come away with mixed emotions at a Waymo victory would be Chris Urmson, who The Atlantic dubbed “the biggest name in self-driving cars” last year. Urmson used to be the face of Google’s self-driving car division, from 2009 until he resigned in August 2016. According to Recode, Urmson is starting his own self-driving car startup, and considering how aggressively Waymo went after Levandowski, a Waymo win might place Urmson on high alert that his former employer is going to be closely watching for any trade secret cribbing. I don’t mean to imply that Urmson did anything like that — but the concept of a “trade secret” is fairly nebulous, and since he is going from working on technology with a massive, litigious company to trying to work on the same technology elsewhere, there will be blurred lines between what belongs to Alphabet and what is simply his learned knowledge.

Lyft

Lyft’s fortunes run contra to Uber’s simply because it is Uber’s biggest competitor, but the transit company also recently agreed to collaborate with Waymo on self-driving car technology, so this case is integral to its self-driving future as well. While Lyft is a distant runner-up to Uber in the current rideshare market, if Uber’s self-driving division is stymied by this trial, Lyft could end up hopscotching Uber to become the first company rolling out self-driving rides to the public on a large scale. And if Uber somehow emerges victorious, Lyft will have a partnership with Waymo, but it will still be up against its biggest rival.

Alphabet

I’m still annoyed that I have to call Google “Alphabet” now. It’s an unnecessary rebrand, and I don’t respect it, so let’s skip ahead to the implications for its self-driving car company.

Waymo

Waymo is the self-driving automobile division of Alphabet, formerly known as Google (ugh). If this case goes Waymo’s way, it will protect the company from future trade secret leaks and also help it compete against Uber. However, if Waymo loses, Uber will be able to use the same sort of technology that gave Waymo an edge. That’s bad, since Uber is already established in the transit sector in a way Waymo is not. Waymo has already announced a partnership with Lyft, and I don’t think this court case really threatens its existence, but it does threaten its long-term chances of market domination.

Uber

Uber is having a very bad year, and settling this suit may be the wisest move. While getting embroiled in a trade secrets case is one of its least humiliating scandals, it’s the one that could do the most damage to the company. It spent $680 million to purchase Levandowski’s self-driving truck company, but it can no longer use Levandowski. (Though it can use the technology while the case is ongoing.) Judge Alsup asked federal prosecutors to look at Uber’s driverless car program, which at the very least means the program is under more intense scrutiny than ever before — and if anything does turn up, Uber could be facing more than just a civil suit. It will be facing its biggest crisis ever.

Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick is probably not going to wind up in prison because of this whole mess, but it will likely cement his reputation, which is already not great.

Judge Alsup asked for an investigation of Uber, and not of Kalanick as an individual. But Kalanick is the CEO and cofounder of the transit company, and Levandowski was a high-ranking employee. A Recode report cited sources within the company alleging that Levandowski had actually worked for Uber’s self-driving program six months earlier than initially reported, and that Kalanick had brought him on after feeling frustrated with how Uber’s original self-driving team had progressed.

Again: While it’s Uber that is being sued and not Kalanick or Levandowski, I’d argue that Kalanick has even more at stake than his company. Uber might be able to weather any potential setbacks from this trial, but that the company is in this position at all is yet another indicator that its leader is dangerously reckless.

Anthony Levandowski

Uber fired Levandowski this week, so the engineer is suffering the most immediate repercussions from this imbroglio. He fell from raking in $120 million at Google and then turning around and selling Otto to Uber in 2016 to jobless and faced with a potential criminal investigation in 2017. While Levandowski is not named in the lawsuit, his career was its first obvious casualty. Levandowski asserted his Fifth Amendment right in his testimony, because he is accused (though not named in the suit) of stealing 14,000 documents from Waymo and using them to steal trade secrets to create Uber’s self-driving car technology. While invoking the Fifth Amendment is technically, legally not supposed to make him look guilty, from the perspective of a human being with eyes and ears and the capacity to rationalize, it makes him look suspect as hell. Even if Uber wins, Levandowski has been tarred as a major liability. Best-case scenario, his career is derailed, and worst-case scenario, he could face criminal charges.