(TNS) — Waymo, the self-driving car company founded by Google, on Thursday sued ride-hailing giant Uber, accusing it of stealing technology that autonomous vehicles use to see the world around them.
The lawsuit pits two of the most prominent companies pursuing self-driving vehicles against each other. And it comes just weeks after Tesla sued the former head of its own autonomous-car research unit on similar accusations involving another startup.
Waymo sued Uber and its subsidiary, self-driving truck startup Otto, co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, formerly a key engineer in Google’s self-driving-car efforts. Levandowski is widely considered one of the world’s preeminent researchers in the fast-growing field of autonomous vehicles.
While Waymo invested in research and development of self-driving cars for seven years, Otto and Uber took an illegal shortcut, according to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. It portrays Uber as a Johnny-come-lately whose race to develop self-driving cars lagged despite hiring hundreds of engineers and robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University.
“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” Uber said in an email.
The suit alleges that Levandowski and others who followed him from Waymo to Otto stole details of Google’s proprietary sensors before his departure. Waymo charged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 confidential files shortly before he left the company. “Mr. Levandowski took extraordinary efforts to raid Waymo’s design server and then conceal his activities,” the lawsuit reads.
The sensors in question, known as lidar, bounce laser beams off objects to gauge their size, shape and distance. While many companies make versions of the technology, Waymo has argued that its lidar will be cheaper and more advanced than that of competitors. The suit said that lidar technology was key to Uber’s $680 million August acquisition of Otto, then only 6 months old.
“Defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable lidar system in only nine months,” the suit says. “As of August 2016, Uber had no in-house solution for lidar — despite 18 months with their faltering Carnegie Mellon University effort — and they acquired Otto to get it.”
The suit seeks an injunction to “stop the misappropriation of our designs, return all trade secret information and cease infringing our patents,” Waymo wrote in a blog post. No hearing date has been set.
Since Waymo is alleging intentional patent infringement (among other claims), if it prevails, it could win triple damages, as well as other relief, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert in self-driving cars.
The outbreak of a patent war in the nascent field of autonomous vehicles is not surprising, and could eclipse the earlier smartphone patent war, Smith said.
“The world of automated driving used to be very small, with ideas and people moving pretty freely within and between various companies and universities,” he said in an email. “But now that there is real money to be made relatively soon, many of these structures have hardened into actual or potential conflicts.”
One result could be to bar startups that don’t have a large patent portfolio from entering the field, he said. “Companies will discover that trivial yet essential parts of automated driving have already been patented — Google’s patent for driving on the left side of the lane when passing a truck comes to mind,” he said.
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.