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MIT Technology Review

Alphabet-Uber Rivalry Intensifies Over Autonomous Car Cribbing

Waymo claims that an engineer took trade secrets with him on his departure and used them to build new hardware at Uber.

February 24, 2017

Uber’s autonomous car technology may not be all its own work.

Waymo, the self-driving car division of Alphabet, has filed a lawsuit against Uber and its self-driving truck division, Otto, over allegations of intellectual property misappropriation.

Waymo claims that one of its former engineers, Anthony Levandowski, covertly downloaded 14,000 files from its servers one month before he left the company. He then set up the self-driving truck firm Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber for $680 million. (Self-driving trucks are included in our list of this year's 10 Breakthrough Technologies.)

Waymo also alleges that engineers at Uber have used some of the files taken by Levandowski to develop new lidar sensors for its autonomous vehicles. The situation is said to have come to light when Waymo employees were “inadvertently” copied into an e-mail sent by a hardware company building devices for Uber. Included were circuit diagrams which, Waymo says, “bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s unique lidar design.”

In a court filing, Waymo suggests 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.” It also claims that other Waymo employees that have moved to Otto and Uber also appear to have taken files with them.

Alphabet’s subsidiary now wants the court to stop Otto and Uber from using its self-driving technology, and to have its documents returned.

The news is the latest, and most striking, sign of intensifying competition between Alphabet and Uber. While Alphabet’s venture capital arm once invested in Uber, the two now share the common goal of building commercially viable autonomous cars—with Uber testing robotic taxis and Waymo planning to join suit later this year.

The courts will have to decide whether that’s all they have in common.

(Read more: Bloomberg, “Uber Is Betting We’ll See Driverless 18-Wheelers Before Taxis,” “Alphabet’s Nascent Ride-Sharing Service Ups the Ante Against Uber,” “Alphabet Sets Up a New Company to Commercialize Autonomous Car Technology”)