Technology First Look

Clash of the titans: Google says Uber stole eyes for self-driving car

When does inspiration become theft? Google's Waymo raises an age-old technology debate in a new lawsuit against Uber subsidiary Otto.  

Anthony Levandowski, the head of Uber's self-driving program, speaks about their driverless car in San Francisco on Dec. 13, 2016. A self-driving car company founded by Google is accusing Mr. Lewandowski, a former top engineer, of stealing pivotal technology that is propelling Uber's effort to assemble a fleet of automated vehicles for its popular ride-hailing service.
Eric Risberg/AP/File
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The race toward self-driving cars is getting murkier, as Google’s Waymo accuses Uber’s Otto of trying to steal its technology.

The once-friendly companies are lawyering up to settle a dispute over the origins of the technology underlying Otto’s autonomous trucking business. Google alleges that the competitor’s environment-sensing system bears a “striking resemblance” to its own in-house tech, the development of which was once overseen by the now co-founder of Otto.

The suit dredges up memories of similar cases surrounding other profitable innovations, highlighting the difficulties of doing business in a sector that trades on ideas and information.  

Once Google’s self-driving car division, Alphabet subsidiary Waymo now carries the autonomous driving banner at the Mountain View headquarters. At the heart of the company lies LiDAR, a radar-like technology that uses reflected light beams to map out the area around a car.

LiDAR is critical to detecting and measuring the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians,” Waymo wrote in an open letter published Thursday on Medium.

Just a few years ago, off-the-shelf LiDAR components cost Google $75,000 per car, but in January of this year the company announced that, by developing and building its own units, they’d brought down that price by 90 percent.

But last year a competitor emerged, when Uber bought six-month-old long-distance, autonomous trucking startup Otto for $680 million, which came with the LiDAR expertise of co-founder Anthony Levandowski, previously a top Waymo manager.

Waymo says it didn’t realize anything was amiss until a LiDAR part supplier accidentally forwarded them an Otto email with circuit board schematics attached. The schematics looked suspiciously familiar, the company says.

"Uber's LiDAR technology is actually Waymo's LiDAR technology," said Waymo's complaint in the Northern District of California, as reported by Reuters.

Further investigation revealed hints that Mr. Levandowski had copied 14,000 digital files before leaving Waymo, and attempted to “erase forensic footprints” by wiping his laptop, Waymo claims in their letter. Otto took advantage of these company secrets to shortcut years of research, they say.

"While Waymo developed its custom LiDAR systems with sustained effort over many years, defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable LiDAR system in only nine months," the complaint continues.

Uber said it took "the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously” and promised to review the matter carefully, Reuters reports.

The conflict highlights the challenges of developing new technology in a fast-changing space where fortunes are made and lost with the ebb and flow of ideas.

Social media giant Facebook has long been haunted by allegations that founder Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea from fellow Harvard students, the Winklevoss twins, who had hired him to work on an allegedly similar social site, a story popularized by the 2010 film “The Social Network.”

Mr. Zuckerberg settled a 2008 suit brought by the twins for an undisclosed sum rumored to be around $65 million, but the brothers refiled in 2011, claiming Zuckerberg had misrepresented Facebook’s true value.

Uncertainty surrounds even the founding of the prototypical tech empire, Microsoft. Some suggest that the company’s early operating system, MS-DOS, “contained code copied from an older OS called CP/M.”

A forensic computing researcher claims to have found no identical pieces in a side-by-side comparison of the binary code underlying the two systems, but some say a professional connection with Microsoft tarnishes his testimony.

These disputes attempt to define what constitutes borrowing and what crosses over into outright theft. Lines of inspiration and influence are notoriously difficult to pin down in an industry where companies frequently recruit directly from their competitors for just that reason.  

In the current case, Waymo acknowledges that rivalry benefits both the sector and the consumer, but writes that what Otto did was over the line.  

“Competition in the self-driving space is a good thing; it pushes everyone to develop better, safer and more affordable technology. But we believe that competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions,” it says in its open letter.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.