The recent ruling by a federal judge in California in the Uber-Waymo dispute is, to some extent, a victory for both sides and serves as a reminder of the high stakes in the race to develop autonomous vehicles. Earlier this week, the judge ruled that even though Uber could continue to develop self-driving cars, the ride-hailing company could not use its Lidar technology that it allegedly stole from competitor Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle unit.
Waymo sued Uber earlier this year after Anthony Levandowski, a former employee of Waymo, gave trade secrets from a confidential server to Uber, which included data about Waymo’s proprietary Lidar, an important technology in developing self-driving vehicles. U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote: “The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo’s intellectual property.”
Alsup said that Waymo “has shown compelling evidence that its former star engineer” had downloaded documents from Waymo’s computers before he left the company. The judge also told Uber to halt Levandowski and all other employees from using the downloaded information and return it to Waymo.
The Uber-Waymo case exemplifies how important it is for car and tech companies to be early movers on AVs.
Despite the judge’s orders, the ruling is good news for Uber in that it can move forward with developing and testing self-driving cars, even though the judge has added constraints from the injunction restricting its Lidar development. For Waymo, it can stay out in front of the race to develop self-driving cars, as one of its main competitors will be at a disadvantage since it is not allowed to use Lidar.
The case exemplifies how important it is for car and tech companies to be early movers on AVs. Waymo had started developing driverless technology a number of years before Uber and has also partnered with Lyft, Uber’s top ride-hailing competitor. The autonomous space is on the cusp of becoming a trillion-dollar industry that that will see explosive growth and profitability in the coming decades. “With 200+ startups and companies operating in the connected and AV space, the coming years will have stories about newfound partnerships in autonomy,” said Amitai Bin-nun, Director of the Autonomous Vehicle Initiative at Securing America’s Future Energy. “But there will also be cases like this one where previous allies have their relationships turn adversarial as they begin to compete in this critical area.”
“With 200+ startups and companies operating in the connected and AV space, the coming years will have stories about newfound partnerships in autonomy.”
The lawsuit has underscored not only how competitive the AV landscape has become, but also how top engineers and talent like Levandowski are in high demand. It’s unclear what Levandowski’s role will be going forward, but he cannot work on Lidar. Uber will have to develop its own technology, which could take many years and allow it to fall further behind its competitors. It could also purchase the technology from a third-party vendor, but those solutions might prove inferior to a custom built Lidar. The Waymo lawsuit has come during a turbulent year for Uber—it has reportedly lost thousands of customers to Lyft, an internal investigation was launched to look at its workplace culture, and the CEO was caught on video lashing out at a driver. In the self-driving realm, besides the issue with Waymo, leaked data show that Uber’s autonomous vehicles travelled only 0.8 miles on average before a human driver had to take over, making it clear that significant work is needed to improve the technology before deployment.
With autonomy set to transform transportation sector in coming decades, the current rivalries in the space reflect the fierce competition. In the coming years, expect the race to step up a notch as players try to outmaneuver each other, whether through technological breakthroughs, intellectual property, legislation, and even litigation.