Uber-Google Lawsuit Turns Focus To Internal Emails

The lawsuit over self-driving car technology involving Uber and Google’s parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) continues, with internal emails from Uber now being entered into the record. Uber is saying no one at the ride-hailing company knew about an employee’s alleged theft of Google’s intellectual property. Alphabet is accusing Uber of a cover-up.

Anthony Levandowski, a former Google self-driving car engineer and co-founder of the self-driving truck company Otto, is at the center of the lawsuit. Levandowski, now an ex-employee of Uber, is accused of stealing self-driving car plans from Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit. Uber insists that Levandowski was under explicit instructions not to bring any intellectual property with him from Google.

Levandowski left Google in January 2016 to found Otto, which specializes in self-driving trucks. Eight months later, Uber bought Otto and placed Levandowski in charge of autonomous vehicle development. Uber fired him in May for refusing to cooperate with its investigation.

Waymo claims that Levandowski downloaded thousands of internal documents before he left Google which were then used to help Uber advance its self-driving car program. Waymo also alleges that Levandowski stole its proprietary design for lidar, a laser-based sensor that helps the cars identify objects in the environment around them. Waymo’s attorneys are trying to prove that the ride-hailing company has been using the stolen technology.

According to an internal Uber email unsealed in court, the company believed that hiring Levandowski and his team could save the company “at least a year” on its self-driving car development. A Waymo attorney read the email into the record on instructions from the judge.

Uber executive John Bares wrote in the email, “Anthony and his close team have developed several generations of mid- and long-range laser that we now believe is critical to AV autonomy (day and night). Not only do they have several generations of experience but also know how to improve on the next-gen devices that they would build for us. We have yet to find anyone else in the world with this know-how.”

An Uber attorney argued that the email only showed that Levandowski and his team had skills Uber wanted. Attorney Karen Dunn says that the email “explains why you would want to hire Anthony Levandowski.” Dunn said, “If this is the best evidence they have of trade secret theft, I say, ‘Great.’”

Uber’s lawyers say Waymo’s real complaints lay with Levandowski. Dunn told the judge, “Their case is about Mr. Levandowski, what they allege he stole, and the fact that he invoked the Fifth. As to Uber, they have nothing.” Dunn also suggested Levandowski might have downloaded confidential Google documents to gain leverage to ensure payment of $120 million bonus that was overdue. Waymo attorneys called the idea ridiculous.

The hearing was held in front of Judge William Alsup of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Levandowski has refused to testify in the suit, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. A jury trial in the suit is scheduled to begin in October.

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