CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Uber says it's not 'hiding anything' in Waymo case

A judge says Waymo hasn't presented a smoking gun in the self-driving car lawsuit, but he hasn't ruled out an injunction against Uber.

uber-mapping-car-7145.jpg

Uber is facing an injunction that could pull its self-driving cars from city streets.

James Martin/CNET


Uber can breathe easy for the time being.

The ride-hailing company wasn't forced to halt its self-driving car program on Wednesday. Time ran out during a hearing in which Federal Judge William Alsup was expected to make a decision on whether or not to grant Waymo's request for an injunction against Uber.

This legal battle -- pitting two of Silicon Valley's most-watched companies against each other -- centers on Waymo's claims that Uber allegedly stole secretive self-driving car technology. Waymo is the autonomous vehicle unit of Google's parent company Alphabet.

"This is an extraordinary case," Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven told the packed courtroom on Wednesday. "It's the misappropriation of intellectual property."

Self-driving cars are a hot topic in the auto and tech industries. Automakers from Toyota to Ford to Volvo all have projects under way. And besides Google and Uber, other Silicon Valley giants, like Apple, Intel and Tesla Motors, are betting on the tech. These companies are competing neck and neck to be the first ones to provide the vehicles to the public.

Google started working on self-driving cars in 2009 and has now test-driven its vehicles more than 2.5 million miles. Uber launched its self-driving project in 2015 and has since rolled out autonomous vehicles to city streets in Pennsylvania, California and Arizona.

The crux of Waymo's lawsuit is the claim that a former Google employee, Anthony Levandowski, stole 14,000 "highly confidential" files before he left in January 2016 to found his own self-driving truck startup. Uber bought that startup, Otto, for $680 million in August 2016.

Levandowski helped develop Waymo's lidar technology, a key component in self-driving cars that lets vehicles "see" their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles. Waymo claims the allegedly stolen information has benefited Uber as it's developed its own driverless car tech.

"Together they created a cover-up scheme," Verhoeven said. "They concocted a story for public consumption."

Uber says it never used the files that Levandowski allegedly stole (it doesn't dispute that he downloaded them) and its lidar technology is "fundamentally different" from Waymo's.

"They're really trying to be cute here," Uber lawyer Arturo Gonzalez said. "We're not hiding anything, your honor."

Injunction or not

To get Judge Alsup to grant the injunction against Uber, Waymo needs to prove two things. One that it will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction isn't granted, such as trade secrets will be exposed. And two, Waymo has to prove Uber used the documents Levandowski allegedly downloaded.

"So what do we do?" Judge Alsup asked Waymo during the hearing. "All that has been proven is that he downloaded 14,000 documents... You don't have a smoking gun here."

In what appears to be an appeal to Waymo, Levandowski said last week he was stepping down as the head of Uber's self-driving car program and would no longer work on any lidar technology through the remainder of the lawsuit. He'll stay working at Uber, however.

"We took him out, he's not working on it anymore," Uber attorney Karen Dunn said. "That is the bottom line."

Throughout the course of this lawsuit, Levandowski has pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer nearly all questions related to the case. The US Constitution's Fifth Amendment protects individuals against self-incrimination.

During the hearing Wednesday, Waymo repeatedly brought up the fact that it was unable to get the evidence it needed because of Levandowski pleading the Fifth. Not only has he pled the Fifth during questioning, but his personal laptop is also off limits.

"He does have a personal laptop that his lawyers have instructed him to use the Fifth Amendment on," Gonzalez confirmed.

While the judge didn't make a ruling on Wednesday, he is expected to issue an order within the next few days. This order could take many forms. Judge Alsup could grant the injunction, deny it, request further information or order a narrower injunction than what Waymo requested.

"It was clear from the get-go that Waymo is after something way more than one person working on [Uber's self-driving car] project," said Michael Brophy, an intellectual property attorney with Withers Bergman. Waymo wants to show "it's all fruit from the poisonous tree."

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET's newsstand edition.

Logging Out: Welcome to the crossroads of online life and the afterlife.