Google’s Waymo v. Uber Lawsuit Reflects High-Stakes IP War In Hot Driverless Car Sector 17/04/2017 by Bruce Gain for Intellectual Property Watch 2 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Google’s Waymo claims Uber, an app-based taxi service, stole technology for a critical component for driverless cars, as the one of the world’s most-powerful tech titans wages a fierce legal battle to protect its intellectual property in an emerging area of the automotive industry. The lawsuit Google has filed against Uber also reflects the inherent challenges associated with protecting digitized proprietary information and intellectual property employees might take with them when they leave a company. In this case, the stakes are especially high since the alleged theft is tied to a very limited intellectual pool of knowhow that is required to develop autonomous vehicles, which represent one of the hottest and potentially disruptive areas in the automotive industry. Google’s Waymo lawsuit claims Uber stole lidar and other design technologies to develop its self-driving cars, like the one shown here in Pittsburgh. Lidar, a key component in driverless cars, is at the centre of Waymo’s dispute with Uber. Lidar emits lasers from the car, often scanning surfaces and objects at angles typically 180 degrees to 360 degrees from the vehicle. The vehicle processes the information from the scans so it can self-drive along roads and streets, while avoiding pedestrian, cars, and other potential hazards. Waymo claims it was the first company to develop a driverless car with its self-developed lidar and proprietary software and hardware that could self-drive itself on public roads and streets without a steering wheel and foot pedals. Google’s Contention Waymo’s suspicions about Uber began after it received what it said was an email inadvertently sent from a supplier that revealed proprietary information about the circuitry of its lidar components. “As this email shows, [Uber and its subsidiary] are currently building and deploying or intending to deploy lidar systems or system components using Waymo’s trade secret designs,” Waymo wrote in its complaint. “This email also shows that these lidar systems infringe multiple lidar technology patents awarded to Waymo.” After receiving the email, Waymo says the internal investigation it conducted revealed that Anthony Levandowski, one of the chief engineers behind Waymo’s driverless car initiative who now heads Uber’s self-driving car project, downloaded more than 14,000 “highly confidential and proprietary files.” Shortly before leaving the company, Levandowski put the files on an external hard drive and sought to remove all electronic traces of his activity from his company-issued laptop and the server from which he downloaded the files, Waymo claims. Levandowski also recruited other employees from Waymo to work for him at the company he created, called Otto. These employees, Waymo says, brought additional electronic files with trade secrets and proprietary information Levandowski used to design lidars and related technologies, Waymo says. Uber acquired Otto in May 2016 in just a few months after it was created for $680 million, noting that key lidar technologies Otto possessed was a main reason for the merger. The purchase also shortly followed a “multi-million dollar compensation payment” Google made to Levandowski. According to Waymo, Uber used the stolen intellectual property to “revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense.” “Instead of developing their own technology in this new space, defendants [Otto and Uber] stole Waymo’s long-term investments and property. While Waymo developed its custom lidar systems with sustained effort over many years, defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable lidar system in only nine months.” Waymo wrote in its complaint. “As of August 2016, Uber had no in-house solution for lidar – despite 18 months with their faltering Carnegie Mellon University effort – and they acquired Otto to get it.” A Different Vision Uber countered Waymo’s claims earlier this week, contending it was impossible for it to have illegally copied Google’s lidar and component designs for self-driving cars. Among other things, Uber said its lidar is based on a single-lens design, unlike Waymo’s four-lens lidar. Waymo’s device also has two optical cavities while Uber’s lidar has a single cavity. “Waymo’s injunction motion is a misfire: there is no evidence that any of the 14,000 files in question ever touched Uber’s servers, and Waymo’s assertion that our multi-lens lidar is the same as their single-lens Lidar is clearly false,” Angella Padilla, Uber’s general counsel, said in a statement. “If Waymo genuinely thought that Uber was using its secrets, it would not have waited more than five months to seek an injunction.” Uber went as far as to accuse Waymo of seeking a court injunction preventing its development of lidar as a way to gain a competitive edge. “Waymo doesn’t meet the high bar for an injunction, which would stifle our independent innovation – probably Waymo’s goal in the first place,” Padilla said in a statement. Hard to Protect Regardless of whether Waymo has a case against Uber or not, the case scenario of how a former employee allegedly stole files and data from Waymo reflects the difficulty of protecting intellectual property against insider threats. In the emerging self-driving vehicle sector, the challenges associated with protecting proprietary data is further compounded by the difficultly in recruiting and retaining engineers and researchers from a very limited number of people who have the skill sets to develop the technology. It is also inherently difficult to manage and define what intellectual property employees take with them to potential competitors when they leave a company. “There are only just a handful of people in the world who have the specialized knowledge and understanding of the requirements for self-driving cars,” Anirudh Venkitaraman an analyst for Frost & Sullivan, told Intellectual Property Watch. “You cannot imagine how much they are paid.” Lidar and other associated technologies for self-driving cars are also notoriously hard to protect against theft. “This dispute between Google and Uber demonstrates at a minimum how easy it is for valuable staff and management to download information that is both proprietary and highly valuable,” Mark Turnage, CEO of OWL Cybersecurity, told Intellectual Property Watch. “In an era where this information is necessarily stored electronically, IP theft can take place literally at the push of a button.” It is standard practice, especially in the tech sector, that employees’ PCs, servers, and devices are monitored and have software preventing highly sensitive files from being downloaded. But in many cases, department heads and high-level executives are afforded more privileges to download critical data than employees are – which could be a mistake. “While technologies to detect these types of downloads are widely used, it is often assumed that heads of companies or projects, such as senior managers, may not be targeted or covered by the monitoring,” Turnage said. “If this proves to be the case here it will have been a major shortfall by Google.” Other than taking extra care when hiring employees and attempting to draft rock-solid non-disclosure agreement for new hires, there is not much else that can be done to protect intellectual property that might leave a company with an employee. “The fact there are so few people in the world with expertise in self-driving cars and lidar makes everything that much more complicated in this murky area of employee non-disclosure law,” Venkitaraman said. 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