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Waymo asks the court for more time in its legal battle with Uber

Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has said it needs more time to go through the tens of thousands of pages of documents it was recently awarded as part of its ongoing legal battle with Uber. 

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ordered Uber to give Waymo secret files related to the ongoing legal dispute. Waymo has accused former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski of stealing technology and secrets before leaving to setup driverless truck firm Otto, later acquired by Uber. Given the large number of files obtained, Waymo has asked the court to push back the next hearing date to 11 October. 

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Alphabet’s Waymo — Google’s self-driving car project — has sued Uber, accusing it of stealing 14,000 files to copy its sensing tech.

Waymo said Uber and the autonomous trucking firm Otto, which Uber bought last year, had stolen plans for Waymo’s Lidar, a laser-based sensing technology. The complaint filed in California said: “Uber’s Lidar technology is actually Waymo’s Lidar technology.”

What is Lidar?

Lidar bounces light off objects to “see” where they are, a bit like a radar, but with light. It’s not a new technology, but Waymo’s version is reportedly a tenth of the price of existing systems, according to Reuters.

“Hundreds of Waymo engineers have spent thousands of hours, and our company has invested millions of dollars to design a highly specialised and unique Lidar system,” the company said in a post on Medium.

“Waymo engineers have driven down the cost of Lidar dramatically even as we’ve improved the quality and reliability of its performance. The configuration and specifications of our Lidar sensors are unique to Waymo. Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.”

Stealing R&D

Waymo said building the technology has taken seven years, while Uber’s Otto appears to have done the same over nine months.

The accusations centre on Anthony Levandowski, the founder of self-driving truck firm Otto, which hit the roads last year by shipping a lorry-load of Budweiser beer. In August, Uber bought the company.

Before founding Otto, Levandowski worked on Google’s self-driving project, now dubbed Waymo. It alleges that he downloaded 14,000 files before he resigned in January 2016 — including Lidar designs.

“To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialised software onto his company-issued laptop,” the Waymo blog post alleges. “Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.”

How Waymo found out

Waymo said it spotted the knockoff design via an email slip-up. “Recently, we received an unexpected email,” the company said. “One of our suppliers specialising 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.”

Uber said it took the allegations “seriously” and would “review this matter carefully”. Waymo is seeking unspecified damages, but asked for Uber to be banned from using the Lidar information.

“Competition in the self-driving space is a good thing; it pushes everyone to develop better, safer and more affordable technology,” Waymo said in the blog post. “But we believe that competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions.”

It’s not the first legal battle in the self-driving arena: in January, Tesla sued a former director of its Autopilot automation project for poaching its staff.