​11 juicy details revealed at the Waymo v. Uber hearing

Some good stuff was bound to leak out during three hours of legal wrangling over self-driving cars. It sure did.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

Waymo claims Uber's self-driving car program is using Waymo's patented lidar technology, which helps a car detect objects around it. The above drawing is from a Google patent.


Who needs to be a fly on the wall when there's a courthouse where companies get to dish the best dirt?

That's how it felt to this reporter, covering Silicon Valley's latest thriller/soap opera mashup, otherwise known as the Waymo v. Uber lawsuit. You know, the suit in which Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet, claims former Google employee Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 "highly confidential" files before quitting in January 2016 to found his own self-driving truck startup. Uber bought that startup, Otto, for $680 million in August 2016.

In the latest hearing at a federal courthouse in San Francisco, Waymo on Wednesday asked Judge William Alsup to order a preliminary injunction that could temporarily shutter Uber's self-driving car program. He didn't issue a ruling, but that's expected to come in the next few days.

"Together they created a cover-up scheme," Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven told the court. "They concocted a story for public consumption."

Uber countered that it never used the files that Levandowski allegedly stole and that its lidar technology -- which lets vehicles "see" their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles -- 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."

Here's more of where that came from:

1. It's looking like Levandowski did it

Uber doesn't dispute Levandowski downloaded the 14,000 files (although it claims none of those documents entered its servers). "It's overwhelmingly clear that the downloads occurred," Alsup said to Waymo. "You have one of the strongest records I've seen in a long time."

Enlarge Image

Patent drawing for Google's lidar platform.


2. Levandowski is stock rich

Uber awarded Levandowski 5 million shares of company stock, worth $250 million, the day after he quit Waymo. The ride-sharing company says the executive was granted the stock in August and the award was just backdated to January.

3. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will likely testify

"Nobody is hiding at Uber," Uber's lawyer told Alsup. "We'll produce him."

4. Waiting game

Uber claims Waymo started planning to sue Levandowski in March 2016 -- that's nearly one year before it filed its suit against Uber and seven months before it brought two private arbitration demands against him.

5. What's the Spider project?

Waymo claims Uber created a secret lidar device called Spider using the documents Levandowski downloaded. Uber says it didn't and, anyway, Spider never worked, so it trashed the project. "Do you know what Spider is? It's right here," Gonzalez said as he theatrically motioned to a table set up with several shiny metal objects. "It looks like parts of a washing machine," Alsup replied.

6. Uber's blocking a "treasure trove" of documents

Uber has blocked the release of 3,500 documents related to the acquisition of Otto, describing them as privileged. "To me that's a treasure trove that would say what really happened in this case," Alsup said.

7. And the judge wants one in particular

Neither Waymo nor Alsup have seen Uber's acquisition agreement for Otto. Alsup told Uber to produce the document. "You better hurry up, because a judge is asking for it," he said. "That's a key document in the case."

8. Uber says "what files?"

Uber says it has collectively spent more than 6,000 hours searching for the 14,000 files Levandowski allegedly stole. It says it forensically collected more than 229 terabytes of data, imaged the workstations of 131 employees and searched their emails. Gonzalez said that after reviewing more than 300,000 documents, Uber found only one email that's "totally irrelevant to the issues in the case."

9. Secret meetings

Waymo claims Levandowski secretly negotiated with Brian McClendon, Uber's former vice president of mapping, in October 2015. This was three months before Levandowski quit Waymo. Documents revealed Wednesday show Uber emails discussing the formation of "NewCo" with "Anthony" [Levandowski], along with meetings between Levandowski and Uber, as well as talk of a long-range laser "that corresponds exactly to a product Waymo had developed." Waymo said Uber withheld these documents until last Friday. "There was this clandestine plan all along," Waymo's lawyer said.

10. No smoking gun

Alsup noted that Waymo has "zero evidence" Uber copied any of the files Levandowski allegedly took. "Here's the thing: You didn't sue him, you sued Uber," the judge told Waymo. "All that has been proven is that he downloaded 14,000 documents. ... You don't have a smoking gun."

11. Rock, hard place

Alsup repeatedly said the answers to all of these questions are likely on Levandowski's personal laptop. But Levandowski has pleaded the Fifth Amendment and refuses to answer questions related to the case or hand over his laptop. "The best thing to do is look through his laptop," Alsup told Uber. "But you won't turn that over."

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.