Google’s Waymo Sues Uber For Stealing Trade Secrets About Self-Driving Cars

It’s no secret that self-driving car tech is a growing, multi-billion-dollar, highly competitive new space. What is supposed to be secret, however, are confidential design documents about how each company makes their autonomous cars work. Google, however, says that roughly 10 GB of those secrets — in the form of 14,000 files — walked out the door with a former employee who took them with him to Uber, swiping Google’s work and designs for the competition.

Google’s self-driving car division, now called Waymo, filed the complaint [PDF] against Uber in federal court in California this week.

The company explains why it’s suing Uber in a blog post on Medium.

The stolen secrets specifically pertain to the laser-based scanning and mapping systems, known as LiDAR, that self-driving cars use to “see” the world around them — a pretty vital component of any autonomous vehicle.

Waymo learned that their technology had wandered down the road over to Uber when they received an email from a parts supplier. The supplier — apparently accidentally — included Waymo when it sent out an attachment that contained drawings of Uber’s LiDAR circuitry… which looked, to Waymo, suspiciously familiar.

That set Waymo digging. It found that some former Google employees took a whole lot of proprietary, internal Google content with them when they left the company and went to Uber.

One manager in particular downloaded more than 14,000 proprietary files before he resigned from Google, Waymo alleges. The 14,000 documents “included a wide range of highly confidential files, including Waymo’s LiDAR circuit guard designs.”

Further, Waymo claims, he knew what he was doing and tried to cover his tracks.

The manager, “took extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities,” the complaint states. “In December 2015, [he] specifically searched for and then installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop in order to access the server that stores these particular files.”

After he accessed the server, the complaint continues, “he downloaded the 14,000 files, representing approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data. Then he attached an external drive to the laptop for a period of eight hours. He installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints that would show what he did with Waymo’s valuable LiDAR designs once they had been downloaded to his computer.”

The employee then moved on to found a self-driving vehicle startup called Otto — which was acquired by Uber for $680 million a mere three months after its public launch. However, Google claims, he actually began work on the new company while still with Google.

When other employees left Google to go work for Otto, the complaint alleges, they also took some Waymo internal documents with them, including confidential supplier lists, manufacturing details, and “statements of work with highly technical information.”

In short, the complaint concludes, “Instead of developing their own technology in this new space, [Uber] stole Waymo’s long-term investments and property.”

Google is seeking several different kinds of financial relief — damages for infringing on patents, punitive damages, restitution, attorneys’ fees, and “such other and further relief as the Court may deem to be just and proper” — but doesn’t name a specific sum it’s seeking.

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