News this morning about the Google autonomous car unit called Waymo suing Uber spread quickly--faster than a viral YouTube video or a dreaded reply-all email.
The details of the case are still a bit sketchy. From most news reports, it looks like a former Google engineer is accused of stealing the documentation related to Waymo self-driving car tech. The data dump--a collection of 14,000 files, or about 10GB of data--is what Uber used to develop their own self-driving car technology, according to the lawsuit. It's a bit more complicated than that, since the engineer started a company called Otto after leaving Google, then Uber bought Otto for $680 million.
A statement in the lawsuit claims that "Otto and Uber have taken Waymo's intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology. Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo's expense."
But there's another note in the news reports that caught my eye.
Waymo reps first found out about the data theft when someone at the company was copied on an email, according to the news reports. The email included detailed drawings from a supplier that Waymo says "bore a striking resemblance" to the Google and Waymo technology. (Both companies are part of parent company Alphabet.)
This news comes just four days after a blog post by Susan Fowler claimed there are serious sexual harassment issues at Uber. In her post, Fowler described the environment this way: "When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to."
Uber responded by creating a task force, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. That case is still under investigation by Uber reps and board members.
Both of these allegations raise some serious questions about Uber. For the Waymo lawsuit, most of the claims hinge on a single email that contained the schematics for Waymo technology. For anyone who has paid attention to the advances in autonomous car tech, you know the technology uses LIDAR sensors that scan for obstructions in the road, other cars, and can read lane markings. In many ways, the quality of these sensors can determine whether the car is capable of driving on its own. Waymo claims the engineer stole the schematics for their LIDAR sensors.
According to the statement: "As this email shows, Otto and Uber are currently building and deploying (or intending to deploy) LiDAR systems (or system components) using Waymo's trade secret designs. This email also shows that Otto and Uber's LiDAR systems infringe multiple LiDAR technology patents awarded to Waymo."
What comes next? Waymo is demanding that Uber return the stolen documentation and has asked Uber to stop developing the technology, which is currently in limited trials in places like Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona. Volvo, who is not named in the lawsuit, is a partner with Uber in that they provide the XC90 vehicles used for the self-driving car tests.
The lawsuit could lead to some serious legal challenges for Uber, and could create a major roadblock not only for their self-driving car technology but for future technology plans in general. Self-driving car tech was supposed to be the future of automated car services, allowing anyone to summon a ride quickly and easily.
Combined with the sexual harassment claims, Uber is now under the microscope for decisions that could lead to a serious downward spiral.