Uber Engineer Barred From Work on Key Self-Driving Technology, Judge Says

Uber Engineer Barred From Work on Key Self-Driving Technology, Judge Says

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Uber’s case began in February, when Waymo filed a suit accusing it of stealing trade secrets to develop self-driving cars. Waymo said the thief was Mr. Levandowski, a former top engineer at Google and a guru of autonomous vehicle technology, who joined Uber last year. Waymo sought a temporary injunction that could have halted Uber’s self-driving program.

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Over the last few months, Uber and Waymo have traded barbs and legal maneuvers to gain the upper hand. Waymo accused Mr. Levandowski of downloading thousands of its documents and using the findings at Uber. Mr. Levandowski decided to plead the Fifth Amendment in the case, exercising the right against being compelled to incriminate himself.

In the ruling on Monday, Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco, said, “Waymo L.L.C. has shown compelling evidence that its former star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 confidential files from Waymo immediately before leaving his employment there.”

He added, “Significantly, the evidence indicates that, during the acquisition, Uber likely knew or at least should have known that Levandowski had taken and retained possession of Waymo’s confidential files.”

Judge Alsup also ruled that Waymo significantly “overreached” when it asked for protection on more than 120 patents it called trade secrets.

“General approaches dictated by well-known principles of physics, however, are not ‘secret,’ since they consist essentially of general engineering principles that are simply part of the intellectual equipment of technical employees,” Judge Alsup wrote.

He directed Uber to produce a timeline of the events leading to Mr. Levandowski’s hiring, including all oral and written discussions between the parties about an important self-driving technology called lidar, short for light detection and ranging, which Mr. Levandowski has been accused of stealing. The judge also ordered Uber to do what it could to ensure the return of the files to Waymo, including the possibility of terminating Mr. Levandowski’s employment at Uber.



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Document: Court Order in Uber Case


“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions,” Johnny Luu, a Waymo spokesman, said in a statement. “We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology.”

Despite the judge’s ruling on Mr. Levandowski, Uber also had cause for celebration because its self-driving research program was not shut down, which would have been a more serious blow.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around lidar,” Niki Christoff, an Uber spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The ruling compounds a troubled few months for Uber, which is also grappling with allegations that its workplace is ridden with sexual harassment. Travis Kalanick’s leadership as chief executive of Uber, is under scrutiny. And the company is facing a Justice Department inquiry into Greyball, a tool that Uber used to deceive authorities worldwide.

Judge Alsup’s ruling followed his decision on Thursday to deny Uber’s request to send the case against Waymo to arbitration. The judge set a series of deadlines in the next two months for Uber to produce additional evidence before the case moves to a public trial.

Legal specialists who are following the case questioned whether a day in court is the best course of action for Uber.

“I think Uber has to seriously consider whether they even want to have that trial, or whether they’ll be able to settle it,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “If you read between the lines, it’s pretty clear the judge hints at some wrongdoing by Uber, and he wants to see more evidence which could come in at the trial.”

Uber and Waymo are unlikely to appeal the ruling given that the case is continuing, legal specialists said. Neither company may want to risk a worse outcome.

For Mr. Levandowski, the situation is precarious. Last week, Judge Alsup referred the matter to the United States attorney’s office for possible theft of trade secrets, raising the possibility of criminal charges for those involved if the Justice Department decides to take up the case. Miles Ehrlich, a lawyer representing Mr. Levandowski, did not respond to a request for comment.

Uber has spent the last few weeks trying to minimize the impact of a ruling from Judge Alsup against Mr. Levandowski. In a memo to his staff in April, Mr. Levandowski said he was stepping back from making decisions on lidar technology for the duration of the company’s legal proceedings.

Yet current and former Uber employees said Mr. Levandowski remains a dominant force. In last month’s memo, Mr. Levandowski said Eric Meyhofer, a principal at the research facility, would assume leadership of the autonomous vehicle efforts, reporting to Mr. Kalanick. Mr. Levandowski and Mr. Meyhofer are close, and Mr. Levandowski continues to oversee all projects outside of lidar development, said three current and former employees, who insisted that their names not be published, citing fear of retaliation.

Uber declined to comment on Mr. Levandowski’s current duties or on internal matters.

The ruling was issued a day after Waymo confirmed it had struck a deal with Lyft, the ride-hailing start-up and an Uber rival, to bring autonomous vehicles to consumers using Lyft’s network. Waymo’s research and technology paired with Lyft’s customer base could pose a significant threat to Uber, which has acknowledged it is behind Waymo in self-driving research.

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