Uber-Waymo trial reveals cutthroat race to control future of transportation

The Uber Waymo trial greed ambition and robot cars
  Law and LIDAR       Contributors        Verge Staff     
    Image credit Vjeran Pavic

Monday's trial concluded with the testimony of Waymo CEO John Krafcik, who called Levandowski "an interesting character" who gave him no sense that he was already talking to Uber around the time of his departure. But in Uber's version, Waymo is a race official who can't find anything wrong.

Although Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who downloaded tens of thousands of files before joining Uber to work on its self-driving vehicle team, has been at the centre of the legal battle, Verhoeven worked to shift attention to Kalanick's behaviour.

The Bay Area rivals are battling each other, and a host of other technology and auto companies, to gain early ground in an autonomous-vehicle market estimated by Intel to be worth $7 trillion by 2050.

Those expected to be called as witnesses include Google billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick.

As the trial got under way Monday, Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven likened Uber to Rosie Ruiz, the infamous 1980 Boston Marathon runner. Uber argues that the sharp reduction shows how flimsy the case against it is.

Verhoeven said Kalanick - who was ousted as CEO past year amid a move to reform Uber's workplace culture - realised his company was lagging in efforts to develop autonomous technology and chose to take a dishonest route.

"There's not a single piece of proprietary info from Google at Uber", he said. Levandowski was sacked from Uber in May 2017 because the company said he refused to cooperate with Uber in the Waymo lawsuit and did not hand over information requested of him in the case. Levandowski left Google to found self-driving trucking startup Otto.

Carmody alleged Waymo itself engaged in "unusual" practices, paying millions of dollars to Levandowski, knowing he wasn't entirely trustworthy.

Waymo and Uber lawyers squared off in a federal court on Monday on the first day of a bombshell trade-secret theft case.

Uber's Carmody kicked off with a direct attack on Waymo's version of events.

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"There's no conspiracy; there's no cheating", Carmody said in his opening statement. "That was quite a story we just heard, a tale of conspiracy between [Anthony] Levandowski on one hand and Uber on the other", Uber's attorney said.

While jurors won't hear about that stuff at trial, they may hear how Uber was forced in November to reveal that it quietly paid $7.5mn to settle a wrongful-termination suit filed by a whistleblower who alleged the company stole trade secrets and worked to hide evidence from discovery in potential lawsuits.

Waymo's case, they alleged, is motivated not by genuine fears over the theft of the disputed trade secrets, but by concerns over losing talent to Uber. It later spun off into its own company under Alphabet, the umbrella company over Google. Moreover, the stolen information doesn't constitute a trade secret, it claims. In March 2017, the presiding Judge on the case, William Alsup, ordered Levandowski to stop working on LiDAR for Uber and he was subsequently fired from the company for failing to cooperate in an internal investigation.

Throughout this case, he has "pleaded the Fifth" - the protection afforded by the American constitution to not say anything that could incriminate oneself.

If Kalanick is the big baddie, then Waymo laid the groundwork to portray itself as the kind, innovative, gentle landing place for self-driving auto geniuses.

"As we are here today, and knowing everything we know, Uber regrets ever bringing Anthony Levandowski on board", Carmody said. That is something that Waymo will be looking to disprove in court.

Waymo didn't name Levandowski as a defendant in the case. "It was considered low-value enough that we considered hosting it off Google infrastructure".

Levandowski left Waymo in late 2015 to form self-driving truck startup Otto with Lior Ron, another ex-Waymo employee.

Waymo said it was forced to select a handful of the most significant claims in order to have a trial that didn't last months, or even years.

Carmody also used his time to distance Uber from Levandowski's behavior and association with Uber. What was then known as Project Chauffeur eventually grew into Waymo, a semi-independent company managed by Google's parent company, Alphabet.