Intellectual Property Lawsuit Between Google/Waymo and Uber

Trial is moving forward in the Google/Waymo v. Uber intellectual property case. It has been thought that this lawsuit might help crown an early king of the self-driving vehicle industry, which Uber describes as potentially “the most lucrative business in history.”

In February 2017, Google spin-off Waymo sued Uber for misappropriation of trade secrets and patent infringement, stemming from the actions of former Google employee Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski was a high-level engineer in Google’s self-driving car division. He downloaded nearly 10GB of Google’s data – over 14,000 files – a few weeks before leaving Google to start his own company in January 2016. His company, Otto, was focused on autonomous truck technology. Just six months after he started the company, Uber acquired it for $680 million, and Levandowski was named to head Uber’s self-driving car work.

Not long after, one of Uber’s supplies mistakenly emailed information to Waymo about a circuit board Uber had ordered. Waymo looked at the board, thought it was a little too similar to the technology it had been working on while Levandowski was part of its team, and filed suit for a preliminary injunction against Uber.

A preliminary injunction is, essentially, a temporary restraining order. It is an order from a court temporarily preventing an entity from taking certain actions until more evidence can be gathered and a lawsuit filed (or not filed) or settlement reached. Here, Waymo requested that Uber’s work on self-driving cars be halted until Waymo could figure out possible damages and how to proceed next. Waymo won that injunction, showing a likelihood of prevailing in an eventual lawsuit and the danger of irreparable harm.

The case revolves primarily around LiDAR, which is a laser-based radar technology that allows a computer to map or “see” an environment. LiDAR has been used extensively for decades, but has recently come to prominence with autonomous vehicle developments. The trade secrets and patent claims revolve around this technology. The trade secrets claims rest, in part, on things like the designs for the printed circuit boards that Waymo developed, the position and orientation of the diodes and photodetectors on the boards, the selection and placement of optical elements for modifying LiDAR laser beams, and the laser pulse rate in the LiDAR system to create a precise resolution profile of objects in the environment. The patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 8,836,922, 9,368,273, and 9,086,273) also cover LiDAR technology. For instance, the ‘922 patent claims protection in a LiDAR device including a rotatable housing including transmit blocks and receive blocks, with a number of transmitters and detectors in them, such that light is emitted from the device and return light is gathered and collimated, or aligned, and focused back into the detectors. This technology assists in three-dimensional mapping of the environment.

Uber has several different types of LiDAR devices, and the patent claims reflected actions against them. However, in July, most of the patent claims were dropped after the judge encouraged the parties to narrow the issues, and after Uber stopped work on its “so-called” Spider technology on one of the LiDAR devices.

Last week, Waymo’s case grew more tenuous with the release of a due diligence report Uber commissioned before it acquired Otto. Although report includes dark details like Levandowski’s deletion of files and then destruction of the hard drives holding those files. Levandwoski tried to talk with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about the hard drives, but Kalanick put up a brick wall to the discussion. Together with the report, documents regarding Uber’s designs were released, and even the judge noted that “the product is dissimilar. In many ways, it may be a vast improvement of what was going on at Waymo. So [Waymo has] come up a little short there.” In light of the documents release, trial, set to begin yesterday, has been postponed now to early December.