- The Uber-Waymo trial started on Monday morning.
- The case will determine whether Uber is guilty of stealing intellectual property from Waymo, a self-driving car company that spun out of Google.
- Waymo's lawyers painted Uber as a ruthless competitor, prepared to win at any cost.
- Uber countered by arguing Waymo is motivated by fear of losing talent, and disputes that the "trade secrets" are in fact trade secrets.
- Waymo is seeking damages from Uber, as well as a permanent injunction blocking it from using the tech.
On Monday morning, the long-anticipated trial between two of Silicon Valley's most powerful tech companies got underway, one year after Waymo, the self-driving car business owned by Google's parent company, accused Uber of stealing its technology.
Waymo painted a picture of Uber as a ruthless competitor, prepared to "cheat" to win at any costs, while Uber's attorney tried to focus the case more narrowly on the alleged trade secrets themselves, and distance the firm from the star engineer at the heart of the case -- Anthony Levandowski.
This is, Waymo's lead trial attorney said, a case "about two competitors. One of these competitors decided they needed to win at all costs, losing is not an option, that they'd do anything they need to do to win, no matter what ... no matter if it meant doing the wrong thing."
Uber's lawyers fired straight back in their opening statement, disputing everything from the narrative to the idea that the information at hand can even be considered "trade secrets." "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.
"I'm gonna tell you right upfront: it didn't happen. There's no conspiracy, there's no cheating, period, end of story."
The trial has been months in the making and underscores the high-stakes battle being waged by Silicon Valley companies as they race to dominate the market for self-driving vehicles. Depending on the outcome, it could have lasting implications for the flow of talent between tech companies -- and is acting as a kind of referendum on the "most fast and break things" Silicon Valley attitude perhaps best espoused by Uber.
But the case came to an brief pause on Monday morning just before 10 o'clock, when a voice -- apparently from a different courtroom -- appeared to read out jurors names on the intercom. This raised a worrying possibility, Judge Alsup said: That the alleged trade secrets discussed at the case could be broadcast into another court room.
The case subsequently continued, and as of writing, the press and public has been ejected from the courtroom while the alleged trade secrets are discussed in the opening statements.
'Losing is not an option'
Uber, which pioneered the market for ride-hailing services to become the world's most valuable privately held company, has said that developing self-driving technology is "existential" to its business. Waymo, the company that spun out of Google's decade-long effort developing self-driving technology sued Uber in February 2017, alleging that one of its employees, Anthony Levandowski, stole vital technology shortly before starting his own self-driving company, which Uber later acquired.
The Hollywood-perfect storyline and the drama and revelations leading up to the trial have fixated the tech and automotive industries. And observers say the result of the trial could have important ramifications for both the companies involved, as well as on the culture and workforce in Silicon Valley.
Google is now seeking damages from Uber, as well as a permanent injunction blocking it from using the technology.
Waymo's lawyers used Kalanick's bold predictions on the importance of self-driving technology against him as evidence of how determined his firm was to gain the upper hand, whatever the legal consequences. "This is all about winning," Kalanick said in one text. "Losing is not an option."
Meanwhile, Uber has attempted to distance itself from Levandowski, who it fired after he refused to cooperate with its legal team. He is not a defendant, and is expected to be called as a witnessed but use his Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer questions.
The company's lawyer cited emails from Google that portray Levandowski in an "untrustworthy" light -- but, they went on, "Anthony Levandowski is not on trial here, Uber is."
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.
"At the end of this case you're gonna realise what matters is the tech, not Anthony Levandowski," they added. "You're gonna realise the tech tells the truth."
One of the Valley's biggest legal battles in years
The case hinges on exactly how a "trade secret" is defined. Broadly speaking, it is information with economic value that isn't known to the public, or to others who might obtain value from knowing it. But this doesn't extend to professional skills and abilities -- and it can be tricky to draw that line.
For Uber in particular, the real cost of the case may be the massive reputational damage. The buildup over the past year has produced explosive headlines about the accusations against Uber, and has damaged the company's reputation to the point that William Alsup -- the federal judge in San Francisco overseeing the case -- has had to clarify that the trial is a dispute over intellectual property and not "whether Uber is an evil corporation."
And while lurid details have steadily emerged over the past several months, the trial is still likely to be an explosive one. Waymo is expected to call seven witnesses to start, including Waymo CEO John Krafcik, former Google and Uber exec Brian McClendon, Waymo's VP of engineering Dmitri Dolgov, and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
Krafcik is Waymo's first witness, and will testify on Monday following opening statements.
The purported trade secrets themselves will only be discussed in closed sessions, away from the press and public.