Uber's self-driving car legal fight with Waymo headed to court

Marco della Cava, and Elizabeth Weise
View Comments
Anthony Levandowski, shown here during a briefing at a garage owned by his self-driving truck company Otto, which Uber bought in 2016.

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber suffered a setback in a court case that could affect the development of self-driving cars when the judge referred the case to the U.S. Attorney for an investigation into the possible theft of trade secrets by an Uber executive.

In the ruling, Judge William Alsup said the case must stay in court and not go to a private arbitrator as Uber had wanted.

"The court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up to the United States Attorney," Alsup wrote in his order.

Waymo, Google's autonomous car company, sued Uber earlier this year claiming that its former self-driving car expert — Anthony Levandowski — had stolen 14,000 files related to Google's proprietary LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology before starting a company, Otto, which Uber bought last summer for $670 million.


Ride-hailing app Uber has endured a rocky ride through 2017

Uber has denied any wrongdoing.

It’s rare for a judge to refer a case for possible criminal charges, said Jason de Bretteville, chair of the white-collar defense practice at Stradling, a California-based law firm.

“Waymo’s fully capable of contacting the FBI or the Department of Justice itself,” he said.

In this case, the U.S. attorney in question would be the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, Brian Stretch

Neither side might want things to move to criminal court because if the case is taken by the criminal courts, control is ceded to the criminal process.

For example, litigants might then say that they don’t want to be deposed in the civil trial because it could affect the criminal proceedings, said de Bretteville.

Should the case become a criminal one, the penalties are possible jail time for Levandowski, up to 10 years under the statute, said Christopher Broderick, intellectual property partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in the Los Angeles office.

"If Uber is found complicit in the theft of trade secrets then it could be fined a substantial amount, with the biggest component of the fine being up to three times the value of the stolen technology.  It is difficult to gauge how much this could be because the value of self-driving car technology is so valuable it is difficult to quantify," he said.

Alsup also has issued a ruling, which remains under seal, on Waymo's request for an injunction against Uber that would effectively halt its self-driving car testing program, which would be a stumbling block in Uber's ambitions to develop fully autonomous vehicles.

Uber has argued that Waymo's lawsuit was just a tactic to stall a competitor in the race for the billions of dollars attached to the coming autonomous car revolution. Most autonomous car companies are predicting that fleets of self-driving taxis will be available for consumer use in the next three to four years.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Waymo was asking Alsup to both grant an injunction requiring Uber to stop testing its self-driving cars as well as remove Levandowski from all autonomous car projects at Uber. A few weeks ago, Levandowski recused himself from any discussions of LiDAR at Uber. He has also previously taken the fifth when asked asked questions about the allegedly stolen documents.

The ruling represents something of a victory for Waymo, which after eight years of autonomous car research is considered to be among the frontrunners in the coming mobility revolution. Any company that nails self-driving car technology is apt to reap billions by licensing its tech to those operating fleets of ride-hailing vehicles.

In a statement late Thursday, Waymo said, "this was a desperate bid by Uber to avoid the court's jurisdiction. We welcome the court's decision today, and we look forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct."

Uber said: “It is 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."

Uber has been aggressively pursuing self-driving car technology over the past two years as it seeks to remove the most expensive part of its business model, the driver.

It is still unclear how the ruling will effect Uber's testing plans long term, as the company could reach out to other LiDAR manufacturers such as Velodyne if a court decides that its own LiDAR is based on stolen information.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporters Marco della Cava and Elizabeth Weise on Twitter. 

View Comments