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Google parent company Alphabet’s self-driving Waymo car division today filed a lawsuit [PDF] against Uber, accusing the company of stealing its self-driving intellectual property.

In blog post shared this afternoon, Waymo explains that employees of Otto, a self-driving trucking startup recently acquired by Uber, allegedly stole technical information from Google’s autonomous car project, something it equates to “stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.”


Specifically, former Google employee Anthony Levandowski, who co-founded Otto, is accused of stealing 14,000 confidential files that included data on the laser-based radar system used in Waymo vehicles. Waymo conducted a forensic investigation of Levandowski’s former computer after accidentally receiving an email of Otto’s LiDAR circuit board, which closely resembled Waymo’s design.

We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop.

Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.

According to Waymo, its LiDAR system is “one of the most powerful parts” of its self-driving technology. Waymo’s LiDAR system works by bouncing millions of laser beams off of surrounding objects to create a 3D picture of the world for detecting and avoiding objects.

Alongside Levandowski, Waymo says other former employees who now work for Otto and Uber downloaded other confidential files ranging from supplier lists to manufacturing details.

Waymo is asking for an injunction against Otto and Uber to stop the misappropriation of its designs, and it is asking for the return of all trade secret information and for Otto to cease infringing on Waymo patents.

As Google and Uber fight over self-driving car patents in an increasingly competitive market, Apple is rumored to be quietly developing its own autonomous driving system for use in third-party vehicles.

Apple was originally said to be working on its own full-fledged vehicle, but later scaled back its plans and refocused on autonomous driving software after internal staff restructuring. Apple has reportedly given its car team until 2017 to “prove the feasibility” of a self-driving car system.

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