Uber Fires Top Self-Driving Car Exec Over Trade Secrets Snafu

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, figured something was amiss in January 2016, when Anthony Levandowski secretly downloaded 14,000 pages of documents, quit his job and went out the door with them.

Waymo.Valuation

Uber has fired its vice president of technology, Anthony Levandowski, amid a nasty legal battle with Waymo over his alleged theft of self driving-car trade secrets.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, figured something was amiss in January 2016, when Levandowski secretly downloaded 14,000 pages of documents, quit his job and went out the door with them. This was according to The New York Times, which broke the story about Levandowski's job loss May 30.

San Francisco-based Uber notified employees of the staffing move via internal email, the Times said.

Trade-Secret Misappropriation?

In its February 2017 lawsuit, Waymo accused Uber of trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition pertaining to LIDAR, a laser-based technology designed to let self-driving vehicles "see" traffic, pedestrians and other obstacles.

Waymo's complaint includes the allegation that Levandowski illegally downloaded about 14,000 proprietary and confidential files pertaining to LIDAR shortly before he left Waymo to establish a self-driving truck company of his own called Otto.

Uber, which subsequently acquired Otto and its self-driving technology for about $680 million, has denied any wrongdoing.

Waymo is attempting to convince a federal judge to place an injunction against Uber that would require all work by Uber on self-driving cars to cease. The case is pending.

An Uber spokeswoman confirmed the report of Levandowski's firing May 30 to the San Francisco Chronicle and said that the robotics engineer refused to cooperate with its internal investigation of the allegations.

Centers Around LIDAR Circuit Boards

Waymo said in the lawsuit that the information that Levandowski misappropriated included critical LIDAR circuit boards, which Waymo had spent multiple years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing. The information has allowed Uber to take massive shortcuts and build a LIDAR capability in just nine months, the suit stated.

Levandowski took "extraordinary efforts" to access Waymo's design servers for the information and then took equally elaborate measures to conceal his illegitimate activity, the company alleged.

As one might imagine, self-driving vehicles are a major greenfield business opportunity. Waymo has been estimated to be worth $70 billion, way more than Ford, GM, or Tesla. Several auto manufacturers, such as Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Lincoln, Audi and others are also investing in technology to move people from Point A to Point B and beyond without needing a driver to do it.

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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...