Waymo calls Uber 'cheater' as trade secret trial kicks off

7 February 2018 2:25pm

🔊 Podcast: High-stakes trial between Uber and Google's self-driving car unit kicks off in San Francisco

MLex reporters Amy Miller and Mike Swift talk about the scheduled Feb. 5 start of the high stakes trial between Uber Technologies and Waymo over whether an Uber engineer stole 14,000 digital files containing proprietary self-driving car technology, as well as about the colorful Judge William Alsup, who will preside over the trial in San Francisco.

5 February 2018. By Amy Miller and Mike Swift.

Uber Technologies and Waymo faced off in court Monday with opening statements in their blockbuster trade secret trial, and jurors heard strikingly different portrayals of Uber from both sides.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was a “cheater” out to win the race to dominate the self-driving car market even if it meant breaking the law, Waymo’s lawyers told jurors.

“He made a decision to cheat,” Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven said during opening statements. “For him, winning at all cost was his culture.”

But Uber’s lawyers said evidence will show none of the trade secrets Waymo has accused Uber of stealing are actually trade secrets. Waymo sued Uber because it wanted to make “big bucks” from self-driving technology, and Uber was a “formidable” competitor, Uber’s Bill Carmody said.

After Uber hired Waymo’s star self-driving car engineer, Anthony Levandowski, Waymo was worried it might lose the race, he said. “This case is really about Waymo wanting to stop its biggest competitor, Uber,” Carmody said.

The case before a 10-person jury in San Francisco federal court could determine which company dominates the autonomous car market nearly a year after Alphabet’s self-driving car unit Waymo sued rival Uber. Jurors will have to decide if the eight alleged trade secrets in the case related to LiDAR technology, which allows driverless vehicles to “see” the road ahead of them, are trade secrets, and whether Uber illegally acquired and used them.

Waymo has alleged that its former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files in December 2015 before leaving to found his own self-driving truck company, which was later acquired by Uber. Levandowski has refused to cooperate with lawyers in the case and was fired from Uber last year.

The competitive pressure to win the race to dominate the self-driving car market was so intense, Uber’s Kalanick decided that “winning was more important than obeying the law,” Verhoeven said.

Google engineers started developing self-driving technology in 2009, back when “no one thought it was possible,” Verhoeven said. By 2014, when it became apparent that self-driving cars were feasible, “that’s when the race started,” and Google was in the lead, he said.

Originally the Google project was called “Chauffer” and became Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, in 2016.

Uber also realized around 2014 that its business model depended on developing its own self-driving cars and began hiring engineers to do just that.

“At first, Uber did it the right way,” Verhoeven said. However, he said the company couldn’t catch up, so it opted instead to cheat and steal to get ahead.

Evidence will show that Uber specifically hired Levandowski, an expert in LiDAR technology whose first self-driving motorcycle is on display at the Smithsonian, to “leapfrog” Google, he said. On the same days that Levandowski met with Uber executives, evidence shows Levandowski downloaded files containing proprietary information, including Waymo’s intellectual property, Verhoeven said.

Meanwhile, Kalanick and Levandowski exchanged texts that said things like: “Second place is first loser” and “Losing is not an option,” Verhoeven said.

“Evidence is going to show that Mr. Kalancik was driving this,” Verhoeven said. “He was the one who decided to break the rules.”

Uber even agreed to buy Levandowski’s company after a forensics analysis raised serious questions about information he’d downloaded from Waymo, Verhoeven said. And Uber knew what it was doing was wrong because it agreed to pay for any lawsuits that Levandowski might face, Verhoeven said.

“There’s no question they were doing this deal no matter what,” Verhoeven said.

Uber’s Carmody countered that there’s an “elephant in the room.”

There’s no proof that any of Waymo’s proprietary information made it to Uber or into its self-driving car technology, he said. “Nothing. Zero. They don’t want to talk about that.”

Furthermore, the information Uber is accused of stealing can’t be classified as trade secrets, he said. “No one can own publicly known ideas,” he said.

Waymo is really suing Uber, Carmody said, to take down a serious competitor in the self-driving car market. And Google executives were upset that Uber had hired away so many of its engineers, including Google co-founder Larry Page, he said.

Evidence shows that Google had already flagged Levandowski as a problematic employee who wasn’t forthcoming with the truth, Carmody said, but Page still wanted to make sure he was well paid and happy. “Google knew the only way to win in the self-driving car market was to retain top engineering talent,” Carmody said.

But in the end, he said, Uber regrets hiring Levandowski. “All Uber had to show for Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit,” he said.

Witness testimony begins

The jury heard its first witness testimony later Monday from Waymo CEO John Krafcik, and the differences in how the two sides will portray themselves during trial became apparent. Krafcik, who joined Google in 2015, described a culture clash within Waymo.

Levandowski favored the Silicon Valley ethos of “move fast and break things,” once famously promoted by Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. By contrast, the 56-year-old Krafcik, who had worked in the car industry his whole life for Ford, Hyundai and other companies, said he advocated a more careful approach focused on preventing fatal car crashes.

“The ‘break things’ part is very challenging when you’re talking about cars and people’s lives,” Krafcik said of Levandowski’s approach during direct examination by Verhoeven. “I think it’s fair to say we had different points of view on safety.”

But under cross-examination, Carmody pushed Krafcik to admit to a different view — that he was a beleaguered newcomer to Google who couldn't retain Waymo’s top engineering talent. Those engineers, including Levandowski, were defecting to a bevy of quicker-moving startups and other competitors, Carmody said.

Carmody used a series of internal Google e-mails from 2016 to suggest that a frustrated Levandowski went over Krafcik’s head and complained to Page that the company’s self-driving car effort was too conservative.

“We’re losing our tech advantage fast,” Levandowski said in an e-mail to Page. “Part of our team seems to be afraid to ship.”

Just as Steve Jobs had done at Apple in developing early MacIntosh computers, Levandowski wanted to create a “Team Mac” that would compete internally with Krafcik’s slower moving Chaffeur team, Carmody said. “What Anthony Levandowski is talking about in going over your head to Larry Page is wanting to do a Team Mac within Google to compete against you and Chaffeur,” he said.

“I think that reference went over my head when I saw that,” Krafcik said, acknowledging he was new to Silicon Valley.

Kalanick is expected to take the witness stand Tuesday.

CCPA Report