Summary of the Waymo vs. Uber Lawsuit
Google's autonomous vehicle project that initially started in their research lab, X, became its own operating company under the Alphabet umbrella in December of 2016. This was a signal from Alphabet that indicated that their self-driving technology had advanced far beyond a simple research project and was ready to become commercialized.
Fast forwarding to May 2017, Waymo vehicles have self-driven more than three million miles, mostly on city streets.
Anthony Levandowski joined Google in 2007, where he founded two companies: 510 Systems and Anthony's Robots. 510 Systems worked on mobile mapping that incorporated LiDAR technology. Anthony's Robots, meanwhile, designed and built a self-driving Toyota Prius called the "Pribot". Google acquired both 510 Systems and Anthony's Robots to further advance its own self-driving car project.
Google appointed Levandowski as their self-driving lead. But in January of 2016, he left to found Otto, a company that designs self-driving kits for semi-trailer trucks. Uber acquired Otto some three months later, in July, for nearly $700 million. They appointed Levandowski as head of autonomous vehicle research.
The Firefly, a self-driving reference vehicle. Image courtesy of Waymo
Now, Waymo is accusing Levandowski of stealing 14,000 files that contained trade secrets and circuit design schematics relating to Waymo's LiDAR systems.
Waymo filed a complaint to the United States District Court on February 23th, 2017. In it, they claim that "Otto and Uber have taken Waymo's intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology."
Later in their complaint, they state that they were inadvertently copied on an email from one of their LiDAR component vendors. The email contained attachments of machine drawing files that appeared to be one of Uber's circuit boards. Waymo claimed that the circuit board highly resembled their own proprietary design, which infringed numerous LiDAR technology patents that have been previously awarded to Waymo. Otto's and Uber's alleged theft reportedly netted Otto employees over $500 million, which ultimately allowed Uber to revive a standstill self-driving program that was initially launched in 2015.
However, Levandowski isn't the only one being accused. Waymo stated that a few of Google's employees who went to work at Otto also stole various private records and information.
Uber has released a statement that acknowledges Waymo's complaint and said that they take these allegations seriously and will review the matter carefully.
Investments in a Competitive Market
Before going over what Waymo claims was stolen, it's important to understand why they're pursuing this matter so fervently. In short, the autonomous car industry is competitive—and costly.
Waymo claims in the suit that they developed its custom LiDAR system over the course of many years, while with the stolen information and designs it took Uber only nine months.
Waymo's main piece of technology in question is their LiDAR system, which fires off millions of lasers per second to produce a detailed map that surrounds the vehicle. Waymo has said that they have invested millions in their LiDAR hardware in order to make their fleet of cars self-driving.
Waymo isn't the only company trying to dominate the market, either. General Motors acquired an autonomous vehicle start-up for $1 billion and Ford plans to invest $1 billion over five years at Argo AI. Waymo wrote in a blog post that misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.
The LiDAR Tech in Question
So exactly what technology is at stake? In 2014, Waymo was awarded a patent (the '922 patent) entitled "Devices and Methods for a Rotating LiDAR Platform with a Shared Transmit/Receive". In this patent, they make 18 claims in which they claim the right to their housing configured to rotate about an axis. The interior space of the housing holds a transmit block, a receive block, and a shared space. The LiDAR device includes a number of light sources in the transmit and a number of detectors in the receive block.
In Waymo's patent, they describe that, in the transmit block, the light sources are configured to emit light beams that enter the shared space through an exit aperture and traverse the shared space via a transmit path. In the receive block, the detectors are configured to detect the incoming light sources that only have wavelengths in within a specified range.
The figure below illustrates a view of the LiDAR device with the components removed to illustrate interior housing space.
Illustration courtesy of Google Patents
The LiDAR device (denoted as "300" in the above image) houses the components and is shown with them outside to depict the interior space (310). The device includes a housing (310) that holds both the transmit block (320) and the receive block (330) as well as a lens (350).
While these designs are complex and might not make complete sense, other companies looking to get their hands on a share of the market will find this extremely useful. The '922 patent from Waymo illustrates the means for a rotating LiDAR platform with transmit/receive methods that would take some companies many years to design, themselves. While this is an extreme accomplishment tackled by Waymo, there is much more information that has been claimed as stolen from their servers.
In 2015, Waymo received a patent (the '273 patent) entitled "Microrod Compressions of Laser Beam in Combination with Transmit Lens". This patent describes a LiDAR device that can transmit light pulses originating from one or more light sources and can receive reflected light pulses that are detected by one or more detectors. Within the 20 claims in this patent is a flowchart of their design. Getting ahold of this and the other patent listed below would save anyone an extreme amount of effort, time, and money on creating a LiDAR system.
Lastly, in 2016, Waymo was awarded a patent (the '936 patent) entitled "Laser Diode Firing System". This patent, with over 20 claims describes a firing system that, with the above patent, essentially comprises a LiDAR system. In Waymo's circuit design below, they show how current flows through their circuit during charging and emission mode.
Image courtesy of Google Patents
With these files, it would be possible for someone to replicate the design and change a few elements in order to claim it as their own. Waymo has put thousands of hours into this project and they certainly aren't going to hand these files out freely. Not only was this circuit design in the patent but there was also a flowchart that explains the process for operating a LiDAR device.
Whether or not Uber actually did steal the 14,000 files from Waymo, they're going to be set back for quite awhile, embroiled in this legal battle.
As for the previously mentioned Detroit automakers already investing in self-driving programs, they're going to benefit from this lawsuit as they'll be able to get to work ahead while Uber sits and waits for an outcome. As if this weren't bad enough for Uber, Waymo announced that they will be partnering with Lyft as the New York Times first reported. This has now turned into an even tighter race to design the most efficient self-driving car and get it to the market before anyone else.
Just this Monday, Judge William Alsup of U.S. District Court in San Francisco stated in his ruling that "Waymo LLC 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." Alsup has ordered Uber to do everything in their power to return the stolen files to Waymo—and suggested terminating Levandowski's employment at Uber.
The outcome of the legal case is up in the air, with injunctions and court orders periodically making headlines. The only thing we can know for certain is that the LiDAR technology involved is going to be transformatively significant in the future of the autonomous vehicle industry—one way or another.