Lessons From the Waymo v. Uber Trade Secrets Trial

By: Corey Goerdt

Just hours after the Eagles clinched their upset Super Bowl win over the Patriots, a different battle royale began in a San Francisco courtroom between an established juggernaut and its upstart rival. For techies and trade secret geeks, the Waymo v. Uber trial was shaping up to be the Super Bowl of trade secret litigation. The lead-up to the trial had more surprises than a Justin Timberlake halftime show (though fewer wardrobe malfunctions).

But on Feb. 9, just one week into the trial, Uber and Waymo — Google’s autonomous driving spin-off — announced a surprise settlement, ending the year-long litigation and turning the rivals into business partners. Under the terms of the settlement, Waymo dropped its claims that Uber stole key trade secret technology from Waymo when it hired former Waymo wünder-engineer Anthony Levandowski and acquired Otto, Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup, in 2016. In exchange, Uber agreed to ensure that it is not using any of Waymo’s proprietary information (including the laser technology at the center of this trade secret imbroglio) in its self-driving technology, and to give Waymo a 0.34 percent ownership interest in Uber — worth about $245 million at Uber’s $72 billion valuation.

Competition for self-driving technology and talent is white-hot. At the center of that competition — and the Waymo/Uber battle — is laser technology that will allow autonomous vehicles to scan and map real-time three-dimensional images of the environment in which they operate. This laser technology, known as LiDAR, enables self-driving vehicles to detect traffic, pedestrians, and the other obstacles that autonomous vehicles must confront in order to drive safely.

Levandowski was a star engineer at Waymo. He managed the company’s self-driving car projects until January 2016, when he left the Google spin-off to found his own autonomous vehicle start-up, Otto. It officially launched in May 2016, and Uber acquired Levandowski’s start-up for $680 million a few months later, in August 2016. As part of that deal, Levandowski took over as chief of Uber’s autonomous vehicle program.

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