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The Uber vs. Waymo case is about to play out in public

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2017 Chrysler Pacific Hybrid minivan equipped with Waymo’s fully self-driving technology (Image courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Grab the popcorn and set your phone to vibrate: The messy lawsuit between Waymo (aka Google's self-driving car project) and Uber (aka the ride-sharing company that needs another bad headline like Mark Zuckerberg needs another million dollars) is going to play out in public.

If you're already confused, you may benefit from a recap of the situation to date:

January 2016: Self-driving car guru Anthony Levandowski leaves Google and launches his own self-driving trucking company, Otto. Before he departs, Google/Waymo claim that Levandowski illegally made off with "9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation."

August 2016: Uber buys Otto, acquiring Levandowski in the process.


February 2017: Waymo sues Uber and its subsidiary, Otto, in a civil case titled Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc. (PDF). Waymo claims that Uber has been using some of the trade secrets Levandowski stole in order to build its own fleet of self-driving vehicles.

April 2017: Levandowski refuses to testify in the case, arguing that doing so would violate his Fifth Amendment rights, which protect people from self-incrimination. Meanwhile, Uber denies Waymo's allegations to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, insisting that Uber doesn't even use the kind of LiDAR arrangement that Waymo employs. However, an Uber employee who's worked alongside Levandowski for years says that there's a second, hush-hush version of Uber's autonomous system that does, in fact, employ Waymo's designs. Levandowski remains employed by Uber but removes himself as much as possible from the technology that sits at the center of the case.

May 2017: In San Francisco, Judge Alsup declines to order Uber's self-driving fleet off the road, noting that Waymo has yet to produce a "smoking gun," but Waymo responds by saying that Uber has hidden documents that would help Waymo prove its case. Waymo also claims that it's uncovered correspondence showing that Uber began to woo Levandowski before he left Google. (Uber doesn't deny that the correspondence is legit, but claims that it dates from much later, in August 2016, as Uber was preparing to buy Otto.)


And that brings us to yesterday, when Judge Alsup issued three very unpleasant blows to Uber:

1. Alsup announced plans to shut down part of Uber's self-driving car program. Details on exactly which portion(s) of the program will be suspended haven't been revealed, pending further closed-door discussions with attorneys for Waymo and Uber.

2. Alsup denied Uber's request to move the lawsuit to arbitration, where details of the dust-up would've been hidden from public view.

3. Most shockingly of all, Alsup referred the case to federal prosecutors, putting Uber at the center of a second criminal probe. In doing so, Alsup made no indication of whether Uber was worthy of being formally prosecuted. However, it's clear that Alsup sees enough evidence to suggest that a criminal investigation is warranted.


Item No. 3 is especially bad news for Uber.

Though Uber lost its argument in favor of arbitration, Uber could've still opted to settle the civil suit privately at any time, minimizing the potential for bad press. Now that there's a criminal investigation linked to the case, it will be much harder for Uber to hide potentially unsavory details.

The suit is expected to go to trial in October.

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