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Waymo has one of its lidar patents gutted, thanks to a random engineer

Waymo lost almost all its patent claims on a lidar design because of a single, nonaffiliated engineer.

Waymo Castle Test
Waymo's in-house lidar sensors aren't as original as it made them out to be, according to a non-final judgement from the US Patent Office.

When Waymo and Uber had it out earlier this year over the use of trade secrets related, in part at least, to its lidar designs. It was huge news. The fight was intense and ended up with Uber paying a $245 million settlement on top of agreeing not to use any data that could have come from Waymo. It turns out now that one of Waymo's lidar patents wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and it was all discovered by one random guy, according to Ars Technica.

The one random guy in question is named Eric Swildens, and somewhat shockingly, he doesn't work for Uber. Or Waymo. Or anyone else with any financial dog in the fight between the two self-driving car companies. He's just a lone engineer who saw Waymo's lidar patent, called BS, and forked over around $6,000 of his own money to issue a challenge to the US Patent Office, which agreed with him, voiding all but three of Waymo's patent claims.

Part of what tipped Swildens off that something might be rotten in Mountain View was the almost staggering simplicity of the design of the lidar units that Waymo claimed to have created. Swildens felt there was no way a design this simple hadn't been thought of, being composed of just a few basic components. Add the fact that in some of Waymo's patent claims, electrical current is shown to be traveling both to and from ground in a single wire -- this is impossible -- and Mr. Swildens decided to do something about it.

The funny part is that Waymo filed its lidar patent after splitting from Velodyne because of cost and complexity, but it would seem that some of the designs in its patent are awfully similar to those held by its former supplier. Given all the smack that Waymo CEO John Krafcik has talked in the past about Velodyne, specifically their prices, things could get awkward pretty quickly.

In the end, Uber told Ars Technica that it wasn't going to bother redesigning its lidar sensors yet again and Eric Swildens, not having a financial interest in the matter beyond the six grand he invested in standing up to the man, says that he won't be looking into Waymo's other patents anytime soon.

Waymo and Uber declined to offer official comment on the matter.