By on May 12, 2017

self-driving uber advanced tech center autonomous car

Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber Technologies’ alleged theft and usage of autonomous trade secrets is going to trial.

Judge William Alsup ruled Uber could not force the case into private arbitration and is referring the matter to the United States Attorney for a very public investigation.

This is everything the ride-hailing company didn’t want.

Alsup has also partially granted Alphabet’s self-driving unit’s request for a court injunction against Uber’s self-driving research, but that injunction has been filed under seal so the full extent of the order is not yet known.

Waymo accuses Anthony Levandowski, one of its former engineers, of stealing thousands of confidential documents before establishing Otto — his own self-driving truck startup. It believes Otto was little more than a placeholder company created by Uber and Levandowski to disguise its plans to steal the driverless car technology. Uber argued unsuccessfully that those claims belonged in arbitration proceedings due to a clause in Levandowski’s former employment contracts, while denying it has any connection to the alleged stolen files.

Judge Alsup previously stated Waymo had not made a compelling case against Uber, but theorized the matter had everything to do with Levandowski unwillingness to testify and the withholding of specific documents.

“Defendants have repeatedly accused Waymo of using ‘artful’ or ‘tactical’ pleading to evade its arbitration obligations by omitting Levandowski as a defendant,” Judge Alsup wrote on his decision. “These accusations are unwarranted.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, an Uber spokessperon said it was “unfortunate that Waymo will be permitted to avoid abiding by the arbitration promise it requires its employees to make. We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology in any forum.”

Waymo had already pursued arbitration against Levandowski in the fall — months before it filed the lawsuit against his current employer.

“Waymo has honored its obligation to arbitrate against Levandowski by arbitrating its claims against Levandowski,” Alsup wrote. “Its decision to bring separate claims against defendants in court was not only reasonable but also the only course available, since Waymo had no arbitration agreement with defendants. Even though he is not a defendant here, moreover, Levandowski’s assertion of his Fifth Amendment privilege has obstructed and continues to obstruct both discovery and defendants’ ability to construct a complete narrative as to the fate of Waymo’s purloined files. As a practical matter, it is hard to imagine how consolidating proceedings as to Levandowski and defendants, whether here or in arbitration, could alleviate these difficulties.”

Alphabet’s Waymo has stated it welcomes the court’s decision and looks “forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct.”

While the referral does not ensure the U.S. Attorney’s Office will open an official investigation or bring charges against Levandowski, Alsup’s recommendation does create the possibility. Likewise, the extent of the preliminary injunction decision against Uber is unknown. Waymo did not receive everything it wanted but it still might be enough to stall its rival’s self-driving research and development efforts.

[Image: Uber Technologies Inc.]

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9 Comments on “Judge Refers Uber Trade Theft Allegations to Criminal Prosecutors as Case Goes Public...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Of course Uber wanted to arbitrate the case privately; they likely wanted to settle for “an undisclosed amount”.

    With Uber’s wallet on the table, Mr Levandowski will likely end up unemployed rather than prosecuted.

    But if it can be proven that Otto was merely a front for an IP-stealing conspiracy between Mr Levandowski and Uber, it’ll be huge.

    • 0 avatar

      It may not have been set up that way with Uber’s knowledge in the beginning, but there is no way someone at Uber didn’t know that they had Waymo’s files and no way they weren’t looked at by Uber engineers.

  • avatar

    Perhaps this will be the impetus for Uber to get out of the wasteful autonomous tech R&D nonsense and back to successfully giving people rides. Every automaker is developing their own autonomous tech. What car does Uber think they are going to graft their tech onto??

    • 0 avatar

      > successfully giving people rides.

      If success is losing money on each ride, I’m not sure how long they are for this world. They’re trying to get rid of drivers faster than they burn through cash, pure and simple. Every day that goes by is one day closer to the abyss or salvation for Uber.

  • avatar

    This is awesome. Uber has acted like it’s above the silly little laws enacted by every jurisdiction it’s ever entered. It needs a smackdown, preferably multiple ones.

    And props to Judge Alsup. His previous comments from the bench signaled this kind of decision. By the arcane standards of jurisprudence, they’ve been absolutely delicious.

  • avatar

    Not a lawyer, so I seek clarification:

    I am reading this as: Judge Alsup, after reviewing the claims and documents of both sides, simply believes that this isn’t able to be arbitrated because Uber is the defendant, not Levandowski, and Waymo has no contracts in place with Uber that would trigger an arbitration clause, correct?

    And that Levandowski’s refusal to testify or hand over documents that could refute accusations of criminal behavior on his part is what pushed this out of a simple employee-employer NDA violation and raises the question of criminal activity? If that’s right, who is his attorney? Because he got some bad advice….

    • 0 avatar

      What “raises the question of criminal activity,” would have been him straight up (and to a criminal extent) stealing Waymo property on his way out the door to start Otto. If he did that, no amount of attorney’s advice could put that cat back in the hat. And if Uber personell were involved in the planning and/or execution of him doing so (the whole Otto interlude being just a decoy claim…), it could get real ugly.

      Chances are, Waymo’s lawyers are just trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Noone doing advanced work would get anything done if they played along with the petty lawyertopian fantasies about clear cut bounds between “our” property and “their” property, particularly in IP matters. The goal is to make a self driving car viable. Not wank around with self promoting mediocrities on the make, over who “owns the rights” to every “document” describing some little detail. But of course, if brazen theft of millions of files did occur, that does change things quite a bit. Doubly so, if Uber stipulated the theft as a precondition for funding to the tune of hundreds of millions.

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