In Silicon Valley, the heart of the technology industry, a company’s greatest asset is its talent. Their brains and the information they have access to are priceless, which is why, for many tech companies, it is imperative for them not to allow their employees to take such invaluable information directly to a competitor. It’s also why Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, is suing Uber and one of Google’s former employees for allegedly stealing trade secrets.
According to Waymo, Anthony Levandowski, who was working on Google’s self-driving vehicle technology, left the company last year after allegedly stealing 14,000 documents containing trade secrets. Levandowski then started his own self-driving truck company, called Otto, which he sold to Uber earlier this year. Levandowski is now working as the head of Uber’s self-driving department, although Uber and Levandowski claim their technology bears no resemblance to Waymo’s self-driving technology.
The dispute centers around the lidar system, which is what self-driving cars use to help them navigate using radar and light detection. Uber said it started designing its lidar system in 2015, before Levandowski ever came to work for them, and that it bears no resemblance to Waymo’s lidar system. Uber points to the fact that their lidar system uses four lenses while Waymo’s only uses one.
Waymo claims it was inadvertently copied on an email from a supplier containing the blueprint of Uber’s lidar system, which Waymo alleges bore significant similarities to its own design. Uber insists the lidar system currently in use on its self-driving vehicles is an off-the-shelf design from the supplier and that their own design (which they’re still working on) looks nothing like Waymo’s.
Uber says they have found no evidence that Google’s missing files are in its possession, but that might be because Levandowski has refused to let them search his computers. He has decided to plead the Fifth, rather than cooperate with Uber’s investigation, which is definitely suspicious.
Waymo is seeking a temporary injunction against Uber to prevent the ride-share company from working on its self-driving technology until the claims in its lawsuit have been settled. Uber said the lawsuit is baseless and that Waymo is likely only filing it in order to put a stop to the work being done by one of its competitors. In an industry in which timing is everything, a successful injunction against Uber could do serious damage to the company’s prospects for entering the self-driving market.
In their motion requesting the court to dismiss Waymo’s plea for a temporary injunction, Uber claims it seems suspicious that Google has known about the stolen files since October and waited five months before filing its lawsuit. In such a case, Uber claims the need for a temporary injunction cannot be all that urgent, and as a result, should not be granted.
Although the decision to grant or deny the injunction has not yet been made, Judge William Alsup, of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, said in a hearing that just because Uber couldn’t find the stolen documents was not enough to prove they weren’t benefiting from them, especially given Levandowski’s refusal to surrender his computers and devices as part of Uber’s investigation.
Our Chicago non-compete agreement attorneys have defended high level executives in covenant not to compete and trade secret lawsuits. A case in which our firm defended a former Motorola executive was covered in Crain’s Chicago business. You can view that article by clicking here.
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