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LiDAR self-driving technology. A case of calculated theft?

Google and Uber started off as friends with Google parent Alphabet investing $258m in Uber in 2013. They then became competitors, as Uber started experimenting with its fleet of self-driving cars in 2016. Finally, in 2017, both companies ended as adversaries in court, engaging in a bitter legal fight to control the future of transportation.

The suit details the lengths Waymo goes to in order to protect its trade secrets, including purchasing LiDAR components from numerous vendors and completing assembly in-house to prevent any single vendor from knowing everything about the technology. As stated by Waymo: “Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly. However, given the overwhelming facts that our technology has been stolen, we have no choice but to defend our investment and development of this unique technology.” “Defendants’ conduct constitutes transgressions of a continuing nature for which Waymo has no adequate remedy at law”, the company’s suit states.

Industry experts questioned the speed at which Otto claimed to have developed its own system. “It takes years to break into commercialization if you start with a blank sheet of paper,” said Richard Wallace of the Center for Automotive Research. “Recreating is a lot slower than ‘I already have it.’

If neither side settles, the lawsuit could drag on for years. Otto’s founders’ move seems pretty egregious, especially today, when everything is logged and stored. While leaving a company with skills and knowledge is permissible, taking documents is another matter and it is hard to see how Otto’s founders thought they were going to get away with this.

However, if Waymo’s design is derived from public information, such as scientific papers, then Otto and Uber could defend the alleged similarities in design. If Uber is only forced to pay a large judgment or settlement to Waymo, the benefit of the information may have been worth it, as it gave the ride sharing company a significant advantage. “Their R&D has really jumped forward many steps. They gained a huge advantage. I would not be surprised if they had done a cost-benefit analysis beforehand” commented an intellectual property lawyer, Mark Terry.

“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,” Alphabet stated in the court suit. “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.”

However, if Waymo’s allegations are true, it could be a fatal setback for Uber’s self-driving dreams and have massive implications on securing its long-term future in the competitive landscape of the autonomous-car industry. Google could win a “head-start” injunction against Uber, preventing the company from working on the disputed LiDAR technology for as long as it took Google to develop, according to Merges. For Uber to “sit on the sideline” for three to five years while its competitors race to market would be a “very significant setback”, Merges said.

In the worst-case scenario, the court injunction, Uber could try to purchase LiDAR from another company. It is not however the kind of technology that can be simply bought off the shelf. According to Laszlo Kishonti, the CEO of AImotive, a driverless car company, the only LiDAR systems available for sale (at about $80,000) have long wait lists. Waiting is a risk, as “once a LiDAR-equipped car is on the road a company can start building a precise 3D map of a city or neighborhood, cornering the local market ”,Kishonti said, “if someone else gets there first, they can steal whole cities and all the revenue.”

To find out more, read “LiDAR self-driving technology. A case of calculated theft? “