SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Monday ordered Uber to turn over a treasure trove of confidential files on its self-driving car program to Waymo, a Google offshoot and top competitor with Uber in the race to be the first to develop a fully functional driverless vehicle.
The ruling comes just two days after U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered a public trial to settle Waymo’s claim that Uber developed its technology using stolen trade secrets – pointing to Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo manager who now works for Uber, as the chief culprit.
Waymo claims Levandowski downloaded thousands of confidential files from its server before he resigned in January 2016, using them to set up a competing company called Otto that same month. Some of the files are related to Waymo’s highly secret LiDAR system – a laser-based scanning and mapping technology its driverless cars use to “see” their surroundings.
In August 2016 – just three months after Otto launched publicly – Uber acquired the company for $680 million and tapped Levandowski to lead its autonomous vehicle program. Waymo claims Levandowski met with Uber’s senior executives days before he resigned, and that Uber knew it would be illegally acquiring Waymo’s technology but purchased the company anyway to fast-track its floundering efforts to build an effective LiDAR system.
In Monday’s ruling, Alsup also directed Levandowski to stop working on Uber’s LiDAR system, from which he has already voluntarily recused himself.
Alsup stopped short of ordering Uber to cease working on its driverless car program altogether, which Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler noted in an email.
“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LiDAR,” Kohler said. “We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up.”
Waymo had asked that Uber stop using 121 of its trade secrets until the trial, which Alsup called an overreach.
“It has become clear that Waymo has both overreached in defining its trade secrets and made moving targets out of its asserted trade secrets to evade defensive arguments. Under these circumstances and on this record, no adverse inference that could be drawn in Waymo’s favor would justify overlooking these problems, pretending that all 121 of Waymo’s asserted trade secrets are valid, and enjoining defendants from using any of them so as to effectively halt Uber’s self-driving efforts until trial,” he wrote.
Instead, Alsup granted Waymo provisional relief by ordering Uber to return the 14,000 pilfered files to Waymo, and produce a detailed accounting of every person at Uber who saw any part of the files, what they saw, and for what purpose. Uber also must turn over all of Levandowski’s communications mentioning LiDAR.
Scolding Waymo for gamesmanship, Alsup said it would be wrong to allow a single company to monopolize “broad scientific concepts and principles” by asserting them as trade secrets.
But Alsup acknowledged Waymo deserved some protection from potential misuse of its stolen files, as there is enough evidence to show they contain at least some trade secrets, that Levandowski downloaded the files before he resigned, and that Uber knew that Levandowski had taken them.
“Levandowski remains in possession of over 14,000 confidential files from Waymo, at least some of which likely contain Waymo’s trade secrets,” Alsup wrote. “Misuse of that treasure trove remains an ever-present danger wholly at his whim. Under these circumstances, the harm that Waymo is likely to suffer as a result of such misuse cannot be unwound after the fact, nor can it be adequately compensated for with monetary damages. This order therefore concludes Waymo has shown likelihood of irreparable harm sufficient to justify the relief granted herein.”
In an email, Waymo spokeswoman Natalie Raps praised the ruling.
“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions. We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology,” Raps said. “The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct.”