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Waymo v. Uber: A case of theft, lies and self-driving cars

On day one of Silicon Valley's highly anticipated trial, lawyers make claims of theft and conspiracy.

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

Judge William Alsup presides over a packed courtroom in the Waymo v. Uber trial, which is about alleged stolen trade secrets for self-driving cars.

Vicki Behringer

The first day of the Waymo v. Uber trial over self-driving car trade secrets had it all: a packed courtroom, comical technical glitches and the creation of a fake Twitter account in the judge's name.

And that's aside from the testimony.

The high-profile Silicon Valley case pits Waymo -- the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet -- against Uber, the world's most highly valued startup. Waymo claims Uber's former star engineer stole 14,000 "highly confidential" files to develop its own technology. Uber calls the claim "baseless."

Monday was the first day of the trial, which is expected to last at least three weeks. Lawyers for the two companies presented their opening statements, aiming to toss barbs into each other's cases.

"It's unconscionable that there are this many lawyers in the room," said Judge William Alsup, who is presiding over the case in San Francisco's District Court for the Northern District of California. "Nine lawyers per side is a world record, for my courtroom anyway."

It's on Waymo's lawyers to prove that not only did Uber get its hands on the 14,000 files, but also that it actually used the documents to develop its self-driving cars. If Uber is found to have pilfered the files, it may be forced to halt its autonomous-vehicle program and hand nearly $2 billion over to Waymo.

Watch this: Waymo v. Uber trial kicks off with opening statements

Waymo: Uber will stop at nothing

Waymo laid out its side of the case, painting Uber as a cut-throat company that would do anything to win, including stealing, taking shortcuts and breaking the law.

"This case is about a company making a decision that it had to develop this technology in order for its business model to survive," said Waymo's lawyer Charles Verhoeven. "It made a decision that winning is more important than obeying the law."

He outlined the history of Waymo, which started in 2009 as Google's self-driving car project formerly known as "Project Chauffeur." He talked about the work of the company's star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who allegedly stole the 14,000 files before forming his own self-driving truck startup Ottomotto that was then acquired by Uber.

Verhoeven showed slides detailing secretive text messages and coded language that people at Uber used to talk about getting Levandowski on the team -- even though he was still working at Google.

"Plan is to pull Anthony and team into Uber instead of working with them as a separate company," one email sent to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick read. "Laser is the sauce (AL laser ends up being critical to AV success - no clear substitute)."

Verhoeven explained that what that email meant is Levandowski's self-driving car laser is what was necessary for Uber to achieve autonomous vehicle success.

Uber: Waymo has it all wrong

When it came time for Uber to recount its story for the jury, it called Waymo's rendition pure fiction.

"That was quite a story we just heard," said Uber lawyer Bill Carmody. "I want to tell you right up front it didn't happen. There's no conspiracy, there's no cheating. Period. End of story,"

Uber said it never got the 14,000 files that Levandowski allegedly stole and its motive in getting him on the team was to acquire one of the world's top self-driving car engineers. The development of autonomous vehicles is a competitive space, Carmody said, and all companies involved vie for the best talent.

"What they're looking for, what Google is looking for, what Uber is looking for is the most talented engineers," Carmody said. Levandowski is "a pioneer in the autonomous vehicle business."

Uber's lawyer presented slides with a 2015 email from Chauffeur's head, Chris Urmson, to Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The emails illustrated the company's fear of losing to Uber.

"Uber is acquiring the people I suggested we hire 1.5 years ago but was denied the opportunity to do so," Urmson wrote. "We have a choice between being the headline or the footnote in history's book on the next revolution in transportation. Let's make the right choice."

The day wrapped up with Waymo calling its first two witnesses -- its CEO John Krafcik and Vice President of Engineering Dmitri Dolgov. Both men talked about the work Waymo has done to develop its self-driving car program and aimed to show the central reason the company is suing Uber is because of the allegedly stolen trade secrets.

"We believe in competition, we believe in fair competition," Krafcik said. "What we came to find was that aspects of our technology were taken from us in an unfair fashion."

Dolgov's testimony will continue on Tuesday. Several other witnesses who will be called to the stand include Google security engineer Gary Brown, Waymo's self-driving systems architect abd William Grossman. Uber's Kalanick is also expected to testify as early as Tuesday. Others, including Levandowski and Page, have been listed as potential witnesses as well.

First published Feb. 5 at 4:24 p.m. PT.
Update Feb. 6 at 10:53 a.m. PT: Adds more information about expected testimony.

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