In a packed courtroom in San Francisco on Wednesday, all parties involved seemed to be in agreement. Google lawyers alleged that the company’s former engineer and current Uber employee Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 confidential documents off a computer owned by Waymo, Google’s self-driving spinoff. Lawyers for Uber repeatedly failed to dispute this portion of the presented facts while defending themselves against a gargantuan Waymo suit. And the judge seemed convinced. “You have one of the strongest records I’ve seen for a long time of anybody doing something that bad,” Judge William Alsup told Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoven, who works for the law firm Quinn Emanuel. “Good for you.”
The open question is what happened next.
Waymo alleges Levandowski used trade secrets in those swiped documents to launch his own self-driving truck startup, Otto, shortly after departing from Google in January 2016. By August, Otto had been snapped up by Uber for an amazing $680 million. Then, the Waymo story goes, the secrets to its sophisticated lidar system—the tech that enables self-driving cars to “see”—made its way into Uber technology. Waymo alleges trade secret theft and patent infringement. On Wednesday, the search giant’s lawyers tried to make the case that its predicament was so severe—the costs to its business so high—that Alsup should issue a preliminary injunction halting Uber’s self-driving activities involving the lidar. Once a competitor takes advantage of a swiped trade secret, “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Verhoven. Shorter: They’re using our tech in their self-driving cars, so shut ‘em down.
What’s not quite proven yet: That the complex lidar system Levandowski built for Uber was heavily inspired by Waymo-owned patents and trade secrets. Waymo also can’t quite pin down whether Uber employees saw the stolen documents or if those documents moved anywhere beyond the computer Levandowski allegedly used to steal them. (Uber lawyers say extensive searches of their company’s system for anything connected to the secrets comes up nil.) Did a laptop containing the documents ever enter an Uber office? Did Levandowski access the documents for reference while working from home? So far, the evidence is only circumstantial.
Alsup was quick to point out the gaps in Waymo’s story. “I’ve given you lots of discovery, and so far you don’t have any smoking gun,” he told Waymo lawyers.
But Waymo complained Levandowski’s decision to assert his Fifth Amendment rights has seriously hampered the proceedings against Uber. (Levandowski himself is in arbitration with his former company.) Lawyers for Waymo also said Uber had blocked the release of 3,500 documents related to the acquisition of Otto on the grounds that they contain privileged information. The self-driving market is hot, Waymo lawyers said, which meant this evidence’s absence, plus the suspicion that Uber is using pilfered tech in its self-driving cars, should be grounds for a preliminary injunction.
But if the tech-head gawkers, besuited lawyers, and tap-tapping reporters who packed into Alsup’s chambers Wednesday wanted resolution, they were disappointed. Alsup did not rule on the preliminary injunction from the bench. Instead, while waiting for his judgment to come sometime in the next few days, Uber’s self-driving program lives on.
Alsup could also grant Waymo’s injunction request to bar Levandowski from working on parts of Uber’s self-driving business (a prospect Uber probably feels pretty meh about, given that the company moved Levandowski off lidar projects last week). Or the judge could deny the injunction, leaving the rest of the lawsuit, along with its scary business implications for Uber, to simply take its course. Remember: This case is still in the preliminary stages. Though Uber’s lawyers said they’ve already pawed through terabytes—terabytes!—of information, the evidence-collecting is just getting started.
But it’s Waymo that has a tough road here. The bar for an injunction is high, and most judges aren’t comfortable with temporarily halting anything without reams of proof. “It’s Waymo’s burden,” says Courtland Reichman, a trial lawyer with the law firm McKool Smith. “They have to come forward with evidence if they want to win.”
Meanwhile, here’s the weird thing: None of technology discussed in this bombshell lawsuit is actually making money yet. The concept of robo-cars may freak out a cross-section of the public, but today’s injunction hearing makes clear that the companies involved see this as a big money business. “There is going to be an IP war in this area,” Bryan Reimer, who studies self-driving vehicles at MIT, told WIRED last month. “And this is the first of many.” The engineers sure are doing some cool work on self-driving cars, but today’s courtroom action was a reminder that the lawyers just might run the show.