Uber’s Legal Problems Just Got Worse After Judge Calls For Criminal Investigation

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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A U.S. judge called for an investigation Thursday into accusations Uber’s self-driving subsidiary Otto stole trade secrets from Waymo, Google’s driverless car team.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco referred the case to a U.S. attorney, and also declined Uber’s appeal to have the dispute dealt with in private arbitration, according to Reuters.

The request shows that the legal battle over the autonomous vehicle technology is starting to heat up, much to Uber’s chagrin.

Waymo originally filed the lawsuit in February, saying in general that a team of ex-Google engineers stole the company’s blueprint for the LiDAR sensor, which helps a vehicle map the environment around it — a critical component for driverless car development.

“Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition,” the official lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco reads. “Instead, 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.”

Google specifically alleges that its former self-driving car chief, Anthony Levandowski, surreptitiously built his own company while working and making $120 million in incentives at the company. The lawsuit claims that Levandowski “downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems” roughly six weeks prior to resigning from the company and took it to the new budding enterprise, Otto.

Levandowski didn’t disclose the fact that he was developing Otto, a self-driving startup, until after he received the huge payout, according to Google. Uber purchased Otto in August in a deal reportedly worth $680 million.

“Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company,” Waymo wrote in an official blog post announcing the lawsuit.

The case, which pits Silicon Valley giants up against one another, has been sort of a rollercoaster, especially after the name of one of the cofounders of the self-driving startup owned by Uber called Otto was mistakenly revealed. Due to an apparent clerical mistake, court documents failed to completely conceal all aspects of his identity.

Levandowski also refused to testify during initial legal proceedings, asserting his Fifth Amendment rights.

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