Google's self-driving unit, now called Waymo, is going after Uber, and it's making it clear. It's stepping up its legal attack on the popular ride-hailing company, most recently by asking a court to block Uber from leveraging technology, which it allegedly stole from Waymo to get ahead in the race for driverless cars.
Waymo's Uber Lawsuit
The two, both Silicon Valley companies, are duking it out over a type of automobile technology that's seen as the future of transportation. Last month, Waymo sued Uber over allegations that a former employee pocketed more than 14,000 confidential files, bringing along specific details on technology such as light detection and ranging sensor technology known as LiDAR.
LiDAR systems, for the uninitiated, work similarly with radar, shooting light beams to accurately map out a specific street or environment for purposes of nonhuman-aided navigation. LiDAR is a crucial element of driverless cars, according to Reuters.
The lawsuit was filed before a California court, outlining how Anthony Levandowski, founder of Otto, and Uber's current driverless division head, allegedly downloaded the pertinent documents. Levandowski, a former Google engineer who worked on Google's self-driving car Waymo — back when it still wasn't named as such — left Google's moonshot labs and founded Otto, a startup focused on the development of self-driving kits that could be retrofitted into trucks.
In a New York Times interview, Lewandowski said that his exit was prompted by his desire to commercialize driverless technology. Otto would soon be acquired by Uber, and Uber would soon leverage that acquisition to start field testing a fleet of driverless cars in some U.S. cities as part of its ride-hailing service.
Back to the lawsuit, Waymo claims that Levandowski was able to download said documents by developing a specialized software that enabled him to breach the design server. He was eventually able to download 9.7 GB worth of data, along with it trade secrets, blueprints, and testing documentation.
The Race To Finish First In A Driverless Era
In a piece penned by The Atlantic's Adrienne Lafrance titled "Car Wars," the argument is that driverless technology might actually belong in that rare category of innovations that might actually change the world. So much — from public transportation to vehicle-related accidents to traffic woes — could see a significant shift in direction once the technology is perfected and implemented in a large scale.
There's also a lot of money at stake, according to the article. A lot — like billions of dollars in potential profit a lot, maybe even more. The Atlantic argues all the participants in the driverless technology race know this, and each one is intending to outpunch everyone else.
It's no wonder that many companies are jostling with each other to hold the torch that finally lights the technology up once and for all. At present, there are just tiny flames keeping the progress lit, thanks to Google, Elon Musk's Tesla, Intel, and a handful of other companies in the commercial automobile industry. Safe to say that the stakes are high, a notion Uber CEO Travis Kalanick himself agrees with.
Uber Wants To Be First
In its complaint, Waymo cited Kalanick's comments about pioneering driverless technology in an article by Business Insider.
"If we are not tied for first, then the person who is in first, or the entity that's in first, then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher-quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing," he said.
Waymo filed the lawsuit on Feb. 23, and it wants the court to move rapidly, just before Uber is gearing for a driverless service test bed in Nevada using LiDAR technology that the company believes was stolen from it. It argues that it simply isn't just the unlawful acquisition of the files that warrants an injunction, but the utilization of it for "a system that is apparently now fully developed and being deployed (or about to be deployed) in self-driving vehicles."
Google's Waymo fighting off Uber is poised to be the first major tussle over intellectual property between two proponents of driverless technology.
If Waymo is successful in its attempt to backpedal Uber's progress in the driverless era, an attempt given ample weight by the legal basis underpinning its argument, then it could very well lend itself a boost in the race and tromp Uber possibly once and for all, with Uber potentially being forced to halt its driverless tests unless it develops a technology conceptually different from LiDAR.
On the other hand, Waymo's challenge in order to come out on top is to introduce the idea of driverless technology at a scale never before seen. Uber already has a head start in this department, having deployed a driverless service to test the technology.
But as The Atlantic's article notes, if history has taught humans anything, it's that the originators of a technology doesn't always come out on top. A similar situation might occur in the autonomous era.