Waymo, Otto, Uber, Google: A Lawsuit in Need of an Explanation

Amongst the many stories of Uber’s recent controversies, you may have heard of a lawsuit between Waymo and Uber. The case centers on intellectual property infringement, which is already a complicated, technical issue on its own when you break down how a judge or jury determines if the technology is infringing on a patent.

Let’s break down just what’s going on in this situation:

What is Waymo?

To understand what Waymo is, we need to go back to Google Co-Founder Larry Page’s open letter in which he announced that Google would become a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a holding company that will be the parent company for several of the company’s endeavors. This includes X, the company’s “moonshot factory” or investment lab, GV and CapitalG, the company’s two investment arms, and Waymo, the company’s self-driving car project that spun out of X.

Waymo began as a self-driving car research project at X (then called Google X) in 2009. The name Waymo, which Alphabet unveiled in 2016, is short for “a new way forward in mobility.”

Seems like a weird phrase to shorthand.

Yes, yes it does.

Let’s go back to this Alphabet company. Why was it created and did it replace Google?

Google still exists and includes everything you would associate with the brand: search, ads, YouTube, Maps, Chrome, and Android. But now it’s one of several entities under the Alphabet umbrella.

When it comes to the why, that’s a bit trickier to explain. There’s plenty of speculation that the creation of Alphabet is all about improving visibility into the company’s operations and revenue breakdown for investors. Each of these companies now operates independently, with separate budgets and revenue that are reported out in the quarterly earnings the company is required to file by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the the governing body of the US financial markets.

So, back to Waymo. Why was it spun out of X?

Companies are spun out of X when they’ve moved past the research stage and are ready for commercialization. If Alphabet is confident the company has a sound business model and product that’s ready for the market, it’s moved out of X to become a stand-alone company. According to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, “what you’re feeling from the Waymo team is confidence that we can bring this [technology] to [people].”

How exactly does Uber fit into all of this?

Uber, like many other technology and automotive companies, is developing self-driving car technology of its own as part of its Advanced Technologies Group. CEO Travis Kalanik first began recruiting engineers for the project in Pittsburgh in late 2014.

Pittsburgh seems pretty random.

It’s not. It’s home to Carnegie Melon University (CMU), which has a well-respected robotics department where many of the top experts in the field spent time conducting research. Originally, Uber partnered with CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center to develop the technology. Then, Uber poached about 50 people from CMU, which was about one third of the Center’s researchers.

Wait, Uber stole all of the workers away from its partner?

That’s a story on it’s own. Let’s just say it was not a popular move in the technology community.

Did Uber’s technology from the CMU partnership infringe on Waymo’s patents?

No. The patent infringement issue starts with Otto, a startup that was developing self-driving technology for trucks. The company was founded by former Google employees Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay. Levandowski formerly led Google’s self-driving car project and incorporated Otto two weeks after leaving the search giant. The team first announced the existence of the company in May 2016. Only three months later, Uber acquired Otto for $680 million.

Why did Uber acquire Otto? And when are we getting to the patent infringement?

We’re finally getting there. There are a number of reasons Uber bought Otto, including its relationship to car manufacturers, its talent, and its technology. That technology includes LiDAR, or light detection and ranging. LiDAR works by using lasers to detect objects, space, and anything else in an environment by tracking how long it takes for the laser to hit the object and bounce back to create a 3D map. It’s a mechanical form of echolocation. The technology is used for autonomous guided vehicles (aka self-driving cars) to detect everything on and around the road, from other vehicles to obstructions.

This is the technology that Waymo is suing Uber over.

So why does Waymo think Uber is infringing on the LiDAR technology? And when did they file the lawsuit?

The lawsuit began in February. According to Waymo, it all started with an email: “One of our suppliers specializing in LiDAR components sent us an attachment (apparently inadvertently) of machine drawings of what was purported to be Uber’s LiDAR circuit board — except its design bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s unique LiDAR design,” the company announced in a Medium post.

That email sparked an investigation by Waymo, which eventually led the company to discover that a month and a half before he resigned, Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 proprietary files, including the designs of the company’s LiDAR technology and circuit board. Waymo also claims that other former Google employees downloaded confidential information about suppliers and manufacturing. The full filing goes into details about just what these employees supposedly stole.

In the filing, Waymo asked the court for an injunction against Uber’s self-driving car program. Translation: Waymo wants to stop Uber from continuing to work on the technology.

How did Uber respond?

Uber released a statement to Business Insider on February 24th denying all allegations, claiming the lawsuit is “a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor.”

Levandowski also released a response of sorts. The Otto founder exercised his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self incrimination on March 30th. He also hired his own criminal counsel for the suit, though he is not formally named in Waymo’s filings.

Uber officially filed its formal response to the lawsuit on April 7th, which included details about the differences in the two company’s LiDAR technologies, the lack of evidence around the 14,000 files.

Did Waymo respond?

Waymo originally claimed that Uber failed to disclose the proper documents related to the lawsuit on April 3rd. Waymo asked Judge William Alsup to compel Uber to produce all of the documents or assume the company is hiding documents.

Waymo also reiterated its claims in its response, saying “Uber’s assertion that they’ve never touched the 14,000 stolen files is disingenuous at best, given their refusal to look in the most obvious place: the computers and devices owned by the head of their self-driving program.”

So where does the lawsuit stand now?

The last update with the lawsuit has to do with Levandowski’s Fifth Amendment claim. William Alsup, the judge presiding over the case, rejected Levandowski’s request and ordered Uber to disclose documents created by a third party when it conducted due diligence for the acquisition of Otto. The due diligence report must be included without any redactions related to Levandowski in a “privilege log,” which is a document a party in a lawsuit produces that they do not think should be opened in court because of the proprietary nature of the material.

Waymo filed the last update in the case, filing an opposition request over Uber’s motion to keep the dispute private by going into arbitration. Uber originally filed for arbitration because of Alphabet’s employee agreements state that any disputes with the company should be settled in arbitration. But Waymo believes this is not a valid claim, as Levandowski is not the defendant in the case, Uber is.

So what now?

Prepare for a long lawsuit filled with more filings and claims. Unless some settlement is reached, the case could be dragged out for months.