Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car company, filed its trade secrets theft lawsuit against Uber almost one year ago. If the case had immediately gone to trial, it might have looked a bit different. By now, though, tales of Uber’s broken culture have been splashed across front webpages, new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is a public contrition pro, and former CEO Travis Kalanick, the guy who allegedly drove the whole "win at all costs" ethos from the top, is, well, former.
That makes Kalanick a very useful device for Waymo’s legal team. On Monday, the first day of the blockbuster trial over autonomous vehicle lasers between Uber and Waymo, the Waymo lawyers made it clear: Kalanick will play the bad guy here.
“Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time at Uber, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven said Monday in his opening statement in front of a San Francisco courtroom. “No matter if it meant breaking some rules or doing the wrong thing, or, in this case, taking trade secrets from a competitor.”
According to Waymo’s narrative, Kalanick is a vital part of an alleged conspiracy to steal self-driving car secrets. The other main character is Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who ended up working on Uber’s self-driving tech. Verhoeven alleged that even before Levandowski had left Google to form a self-driving truck startup that Uber would eventually buy, he and Kalanick had schemed to use Google know-how to “leapfrog” the competition. The Waymo team cast this case as a referendum on that Kalanick era, and by extension, on the whole Silicon Valley-flavored “move fast and break things” spirit.
The Waymo lawyer read the alleged plotters' suspicious text messages aloud in court: “I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is first looser [sic],” Levandowski wrote in a March 2016 to Kalanick, six months before Uber would announce it had acquired his company.
Waymo trotted out a number of creepy-sounding communications from Kalanick. According to internal Uber notes on one meeting that Waymo says concerned the truck startup acquisition, Kalanick hoped to get “source,” “all of their data,” “IP”, and “pound of flesh” out of the transaction.
“The evidence is going to show that Mr. Kalanick was driving this,” Verhoeven said. “He was the one who decided to break the rules.”
It's important for Waymo to pin this case on Kalanick, and not just Levandowski. In order to win here, the Alphabet company has to a) prove Levandowski took their tech, b) Uber used that stolen tech, and c) that stolen tech was actually a trade secret, and not just something any smart engineer could figure out. If Uber can show this is just the case of one rogue engineer gone bad, then it might get off scot-free.
But if Waymo can piece together a compelling narrative of Uber malfeasance and cheatery with Kalanick and Levandowski at its center, the company might sway the trial's 10 jurors to award it billions in damages. Or—worst case scenario for Uber—the judge to grant it an injunction that will shut down the ridehail company's self-driving car arm, at least until Waymo gains back whatever head start it lost to Uber.1
If Kalanick is the big baddie, then Waymo laid the groundwork to portray itself as the kind, innovative, gentle landing place for self-driving car geniuses. Lawyers played a fun promo video depicting the company' groundbreaking testing work in Phoenix, Arizona. By contrast, Waymo CEO John Krafcik, called as the trial’s first witness, intimated that Levandowski’s approach to self-driving tech bordered on unsafe. “Anthony had a strong point of view that we didn’t need those redundancies,” he said, referring to the practice of having multiple computer systems backing up the car in case something goes wrong. He said Waymo’s approach was different: “I couldn't imagine we would put a car on the road without that level of redundancy,” he said.
But Uber also had a chance to lay out its own theory of the case. Uber lawyer Bill Carmody attempted to corner Krafcik into admitting Waymo was very unsettled by Uber's self-driving car project, and intimated the lawsuit may be a panicky reaction to strong competition.
And in his own way, Carmody defended Kalanick's honor. Sure, those communications may look "sensational", he told the jurors. But looking isn’t enough for a Waymo win. He argued no one at Uber actually did anything illegal. “There’s not a single piece of Google proprietary information at Uber,” he said during his opening statement. “I’m talking about nothing. Zero. That’s it. Period.”
Carmody began to separate Uber from whatever Levandowski might have done. He argued that Uber’s Levandowski hire was unfortunate—but only because the engineer didn't get results, even in his speciality, lidar laser sensing. “For all his time at Uber, all they had to show is this lawsuit,” Carmody said. Uber fired Levandowski in May for refusing to cooperate with its investigation.
Uber lawyers also began laying the groundwork for a broader claim about engineering. The question they posed was this: What happens if aggressive trade secrets assertions stop workers from changing jobs, and using their well-honed skills to make more money for someone else? “Engineers in California and the rest of America are free to go from one job to another,” Carmody said, implying that a finding against Uber could change that.
Levandowski has claimed his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination, so while he may take the stand, don’t count on hearing anything substantive from him anytime soon. Kalanick, on the other hand, will testify later this week, and Waymo will have a chance to paint him as the villain they want the jury to see.
1Correction appended 02/05/2018 10:10 pm EST: This article was updated to clarify the potential terms of a court injunction.