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Uber Sued for Patent Infringement by Google's Self-Driving Car Division

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 27, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Anthony Levandowski, an engineer who developed self-driving car technology for Google, has been looking behind him ever since he left the company last year to found a start-up. Now the image in his rear view mirror has suddenly come into focus.

Waymo, the self-driving car division at Google, has filed a lawsuit alleging that Levandowski took its technology and sold it to a competitor. Levandowski, who sold his company to Uber for $680 million seven months after he left Google, knew that it was coming.

Waymo v. Uber

"We did not steal any Google IP," he told Forbes soon after he sold his company. "Just want to make sure, super clear on that. We built everything from scratch and we have all of the logs to make that--just to be super clear."

In a case as head-turning as driverless cars rolling down the highway, it looks like a wild ride ahead. For starters, the complaint does not name Levandowski but it details how he allegedly stole the technology.

Waymo was leading the race for driverless technology, until Uber leapt ahead after acquiring Levandowski's start-up company, Otto, in July 2016. Waymo had rolled out its first self-driving car in May 2015; Uber unleashed its first fleet of them in August 2016.

But there were problems -- street-wise. In San Francisco, Uber's self-driving car was caught running a red light and a judge ordered the company to get out of town. More legal problems soon surfaced with the technology.

In its lawsuit, Waymo said it received an email -- apparently by mistake -- from a vendor that showed Uber's LiDAR circuit board. Waymo said it bore a "striking resemeblance" to its own circuit board.

LiDAR, for Light Detection and Ranging, bounces millions of laser beams off surrounding objects, measuring how long it takes the light to reflect and painting a 3D picture of the world. It is the key to detecting the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians.

Leaving Levandowski

The complaint alleges violations of trade secrets, unfair business practices and patent infringement against Uber and Otto. It conspicuously does not name Levandowski as a defendant, nor does it reserve any Doe defendants.

However, it says Levandowski was intimately involved with developing LiDAR during nearly a decade at Google. It also explains how he took it with him when he quit.

Levandowski downloaded from Waymo's server more than 14,000 files of "highly confidential and proprietary files" days before he left, the lawsuit says. The files allegedly included a wide range of information, including Waymo's LiDAR circuit board designs.

"Once Mr. Levandowski accessed this server, he downloaded the 14,000 files, representing approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data," the complaint alleges, saying he attached an external hard drive to a laptop for eight hours. "He installed a new operating system that would have the effecting 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."

Uber did not respond immediately to media inquiries, but Waymo went the extra mile and commented on a Medium post. Traffic ahead.

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