Here’s what the Waymo-Uber self-driving car trial is all about

Waymo took Uber to court over trade secrets the Google self-driving car company claims were stolen.
Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the next three weeks the autonomous vehicle industry will be in overdrive. Waymo and Uber, the two biggest leaders in self-driving car technology, are battling it out in court.

The trial over driverless car trade secrets started Monday in San Francisco’s U.S. District Court exposing some of the inner workings of the rival companies. Waymo, a spin-out company from Google’s parents company, Alphabet, has to prove Uber took and used trade secrets for its self-driving car program, along with proving the trade secrets are actually that — secret.

Meanwhile, Uber is accused of being greedy in the race to first develop autonomous vehicles. As U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in court Tuesday, “Uber wanted to take the subway to the finish line” instead of running the entire race. 

Here’s more of the details and background that brought the two giant tech companies to the courtroom.

What’s the deal with this lawsuit?

This is an epic battle over the technology for self-driving cars. Waymo sued Uber a year ago for stealing trade secrets, but the trial’s just begun. The lawsuit centers around LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) laser and sensor technology and other information Waymo claims is secret. And to top it off, the Alphabet arm says Uber stole the information when the ride-hailing company hired a Waymo engineer, Anthony Levandowski, to get ahead without having to develop the tech themselves.

Uber’s arguing these aren’t trade secrets. Any engineer in the autonomous driving field could figure out the tech used to track self-driving vehicles’ surroundings with lasers and sensors, Uber says.

For Waymo to win this thing, it needs to prove the information was indeed secret and that Uber took it and used it to its advantage. 

Waymo has shown that Levandowski dowloaded 14,000 files (that’s about 10 GB of data) from Google just before he left the company and was meeting with Uber about his own driverless vehicle company, Otto. Waymo is also trying to convince the 10-member jury that Uber was hungry for Levandowski’s laser knowledge and Google secrets. Meeting notes show Uber’s former driverless car program director claiming Levandowski could save Uber $20 million per month.

Who are some of the players?

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

He resigned in June after a host of problems within his ride-hailing company. On Tuesday he started his witness testimony in the Waymo-Uber case. Waymo is trying to show how Kalanick pushed the company to use Levandowski to catch up to Waymo. Waymo believes he was behind the secret stealing efforts.

Former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski

This whole trial mainly centers around the laser-tracking technology expert, but he pleaded the Fifth Amendment, so there won’t be much coming out of him here. Uber eventually fired Levandowski in May after he refused to cooperate with its investigation.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik

He was the trial’s first witness who worked with Levandowski while building Google’s self-driving car program.

Otto

Levandowski’s self-driving truck program that Uber acquired in August 2016 for $680 million. The timing of his start-up and its quick acquisition is being scrutinized with Levandowski leaving Google just a few months before starting his own company and then selling it right away to Uber. Don’t forget about the $120 million bonus he got from Google before hitting the road.

What’s the timeline?

After jury selection last month, this week marked the start of the trial that will continue until the end of the month.

The trial began with opening statements from the two companies’ head attorneys. 

Meanwhile Levandowski is barred from working in the self-driving car business.

What’s at stake?

This could derail Uber’s self-driving car efforts — or if Waymo doesn’t effectively argue that Uber stole secret info, the race is on to get these autonomous vehicles on the road.  

Until the jury decides, it will be a long trial full of sensor diagrams, deposition videos, download logs, and highlighted email conversations that executives didn’t anticipate being read out loud in a courtroom with everyone watching. 

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