Uber is building its self-driving car business on stolen Google laser technology, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday that pits two of the leading names in autonomous cars against each other.
“Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company,” according to a blog post from Waymo, the self-driving company created by Google parent Alphabet.
Waymo said the alleged far-reaching thievery — which it said was led by a former employee and involved the surreptitious downloading of 9.7 GB of confidential files and trade secrets — came to light in an apparently errant email.
In an email, an Uber spokesperson said: “We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully.”
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, names both Uber and Otto, an autonomous technology company Uber acquired last August. The technology at issue is called LiDAR, which Waymo says bounces “millions of laser beams off surrounding objects” to paint “a 3D picture of the world.”
“With a 360-degree field of vision, and the ability to see in pitch black, Waymo’s LiDAR sensors can actually detect potential hazards that human drivers would miss,” according to the lawsuit.
“Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology. Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense,” the suit alleges.
Google is one of the pioneers of self-driving technology, and the creation of Waymo was seen as a key step toward building an autonomous technology business with human customers. The company took a blind man around Austin alone in a small car that had no steering wheel, and it has also outfitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans for potential passenger pickups sometime in the not too distant future.
Uber, meanwhile, sees a grave potential threat to its ride-hailing business, since eliminating human drivers would radically reduce costs and allow potential competitors to cut in on their turf and vie for what proponents said could be a massive market in driverless transportation.
Waymo said it learned of the alleged theft when it was recently, and accidentally, copied on an email from one of its vendors.
“The email attached machine drawings of what purports to be an Uber LiDAR circuit board. This circuit board bears a striking resemblance to Waymo’s own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets,” according to the lawsuit.
Waymo said that a key former employee, Anthony Levandowski, “downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems” before founding Otto, which targeted self-driving trucks as its first major autonomous business.
“Otto plus Uber is a dream team. Anthony is one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said last year in announcing it was acquiring Otto.
According to Waymo’s lawsuit, “a number of Waymo employees subsequently also left to join Anthony Levandowski’s new business, downloading additional Waymo trade secrets in the days and hours prior to their departure.”