Waymo sued Uber, accusing it of ripping off key pieces of its self-driving car technology in 2016. Uber paid $680 million for a startup run by Anthony Levandowski, one of the top engineers in a robotic vehicle project that Google began in 2009 and later became in Waymo.
Google was also an early investor in Uber, the relationship eventually soured. Its parent company Alphabet also owns Waymo.
Waymo has drawn a sordid picture, contending that Levandowski stole thousands of documents containing Google trade secrets before defecting to Uber. Waymo says Levandowski conspired with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to use the pilfered technology in Uber’s own fleet of self-driving cars.
Uber has boldly denied the allegations in the civil case, which has also triggered a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s not clear whether that probe is focused on Uber or Levandowski, who has consistently exercised his right against self-incrimination and is expected to do so again if called to testify during the trial.
Levandowski’s refusal to relinquish his Fifth Amendment rights eventually led Uber to fire him last May, even though he had developed a close relationship with Kalanick.
The stakes in the trial are humongous. Waymo is demanding damages estimated at nearly $2 billion. It also wants a court order that would prevent Uber from using any of the technology that it says was stolen, a move that could hobble the ride-hailing service’s push to design self-driving cars.
The courtroom drama will feature an intriguing cast of characters. The list of expected witnesses includes both the combative Kalanick and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Gurley, an early Uber backer who later helped engineer Kalanick’s departure as Uber’s CEO. (Kalanick resigned under pressure last June.)
Two of the world’s richest people, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, may also be called to testify about the importance of Waymo’s self-driving project and Levandowski’s role in it.
Both Waymo and Uber each will have only have a total of 16 hours to make their case. That time restraint could prove more daunting for Waymo. It will have to educate a 10-person jury about the intricacies of the eight trade secrets that Uber is accused of stealing, then prove the ride-hailing service used the technology in its vehicles or improperly shared it with others.
The lawsuit has already established internal documents and sworn testimony that exposed spying programs and other shady tactics deployed by Uber to expand its business.
Furthermore, Uber has acknowledged allowing rampant sexual harassment to occur within its ranks, a yearlong cover-up of a major computer break-in and a $100,000 ransom paid to the hackers, and the use of duplicitous software to thwart government regulators.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup has emphasized that Waymo faces the difficult challenge of proving that the ride-hailing service used stolen technology in its self-driving cars.