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Lawsuit threatens Uber's self-driving car program

A federal judge will hear arguments Wednesday on whether Uber can continue to use disputed trade secrets to develop its self-driving cars.

An Uber self-driving car drives down 5th Street in San Francisco on March 28.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Ride-sharing company Uber is fighting to keep its self-driving program alive while it defends itself in a lawsuit launched by Google's parent company, Alphabet, which has accused the company of stealing trade secrets.

On Wednesday, Uber and Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car unit, will face off in federal court in San Francisco over whether Uber should halt development of its self-driving program while the lawsuit winds through the courts. Alphabet has accused Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo engineer and now Uber executive, of taking technical secrets from Waymo and using them to help Uber develop its self-driving cars.

In April, Levandowski, who founded a self-driving car startup that Uber bought, stepped down as head of Uber's self-driving car program.

Alphabet is asking the court to issue an injunction that would bar Uber from using any of the technology it claims Levandowski stole from Waymo. If a sweeping injunction is issued, it could prove devastating to Uber, since the company has pinned its hopes for the future on the technology.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said that even though autonomous vehicles are still in their early days, the technology is critical for the company's long-term success. Uber's biggest expense is the cost of attracting new drivers, especially given the high turnover rate. Self-driving cars would ease this problem.

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, Silicon Valley giants including Apple, Intel and Tesla Motors are betting on the tech.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment.

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