The billion-dollar trial pitting Alphabet-owned autonomous-driving unit Waymo against Uber has started. It could be a blockbuster case between two technology giants over alleged theft of trade secrets. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
BREAKING: Uber and Google’s Waymo reached a surprise settlement in a lawsuit over self-driving technology. Uber will give Waymo a small stake in the ride-sharing company in the settlement that was reached on the fifth day of a high-profile lawsuit between the two companies.
Uber’s CEO in a letter expressed regret for how the company acquired technology at the heart of the lawsuit.
After their first day in court, there is, it would seem, only one thing both sides of the Waymo-Uber trial agree on: The company that controls the autonomous vehicle market controls the future of transportation.
In history’s eyes, coming in second is the same as losing.
That message was delivered loud and clear Monday in a federal courtroom in downtown San Francisco, where a packed house – one that included nine lawyers from each side – listened to opening statements.
William Alsup, the federal judge overseeing the trial, said he’d never seen more lawyers in his court room.
Kicking off the trial with a nearly hour-long argument, Charles Verhoeven, Waymo’s chief lawyer, said Uber’s former chief executive Travis Kalanick realized he couldn’t catch up with Waymo and was willing to do whatever it took to finish first in the race for autonomous supremacy – even if it meant breaking the law.
“The evidence is going to show that Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” he said. “He made a decision to cheat. Because for him, winning at all costs, no matter what, was his culture and was what he was going to do.”
Verhoeven added: “The evidence is going to show that he targeted and hired away one of its key engineers that had been with Chauffeur — that’s the name of the program — since its inception.”
Citing internal emails and messages, Verhoeven argued that Kalanick believed falling behind to Waymo in autonomous-vehicle development represented an existential threat to his company. Poaching Anthony Levandowski – an engineer with a reputation for brilliance – from Waymo’s ranks, he argued, was not only a way to jump-start Uber’s autonomous technology, but also a way to smuggle Waymo’s intellectual property into his company.
Levandowski has been accused of downloading 14,000 confidential files from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, where he had worked as a senior engineer in the firm’s driverless cars unit.
Verhoeven accused Levandowski of downloading some of those files on the same day that he was meeting with Uber officials to discuss his transition to the company.
“I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is first looser,” Anthony Levandowski – apparently misspelling the word “loser” – wrote to Kalanick in an email revealed in court Monday.
Verhoeven compared Kalanick’s strategy to relying on a video game “cheat code.”
“I didn’t know what cheat codes were because I was too old. I don’t play video games,” he told the jury. “A cheat code is something that allows you to skip to the next level.”
Minutes later, William Carmody, a trial lawyer representing Uber, looked nearly amused when he told the jury that Waymo’s account of the dispute was “quite a story.”
“I want to tell you right up front — it didn’t happen,” he said. “There’s no conspiracy.”
“Waymo wants you to believe Anthony Levandowski got together with Uber as some grand conspiracy to cheat,” Carmody added. “But like most conspiracy theories, it doesn’t make sense once you hear the whole story.”
The whole story, as Carmody told the jury, is that Uber never received a single shred of Waymo’s proprietary information. Carmody highlighted Uber’s relationship with Carnegie Mellon University, which has a highly regarded robotics institute, as evidence that the company’s ideas came from “people at Uber” and “real engineers” who have brought their “talents” to the ride-sharing company.
Carmody said he plans to show in greater detail that the alleged stolen trade secrets are not, in fact, trade secrets.
Hours after the courtroom emptied, Waymo released a statement contradicting Carmody’s argument:
“Uber’s own internal documents show they recruited Levandowski and made him head of Uber’s ATG program precisely in order to get Waymo’s trade secrets and other IP,” the statement said. “Device inspections, Uber’s documents, engineer testimony and other evidence shows that Uber’s technology uses Waymo’s trade secrets and technology down to the micron.”
Carmody also used his time to distance Uber from Levandowski’s behavior and association with Uber.
“As we are here today, and knowing everything we know, Uber regrets ever bringing Anthony Levandowski on board,” Carmody said. “The reason they do so, for all his time at Uber, all Uber has to show for Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit. This is it.”
Levandowski was fired from Uber last year for refusing to cooperate with investigators associated with the case. He is expected to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he takes the stand during the trial.
The Uber-Waymo trial is expected to provoke a conversation about how employers define intellectual property and who owns it in Silicon Valley, where the pace of innovation and turnover rates are high. Carmody used his opening statement to clarify Uber’s position on the matter, saying that Waymo doesn’t own all of the ideas that inherent within some of its technology – which he called “engineering concepts.”
“That’s why at the end of this case, the most important for y’all to do is to determine if the engineering concepts that we’re going to be talking about more,” he said. “Which are at the heart of this case, whether there’s trade secrets at all. Waymo bears the burden of establishing that each and every one of these trade secrets are actual trade secrets.”
When engineers change jobs, he added, they “don’t get a lobotomy.”