See how self-driving cars prepare for the real world inside a private testing facility owned by Google’s autonomous car company, Waymo.
SAN FRANCISCO — A Silicon Valley courtroom drama that could determine a leader in the self-driving car race kicked off Monday, with lawyers for Uber and Alphabet-owned Waymo making their cases to rapt jurors and around 70 reporters.
Armed with redacted executive emails and blunt talk, both sides seemed eager to finally lay out arguments after nearly a year of pre-trial motions before a judge who doesn’t mince words — including Monday’s snipe about requests for preferential treatment for some witnesses “just because they’re famous.”
Waymo, the name of what started as Google’s self-driving car program, says Uber sensed it couldn’t catch up to its program, which launched in 2009. So it decided to hire a top Google autonomous car engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who promised to come on board loaded with trade secrets.
Specifically, Levandowski would be able to give Uber a big hand on developing its LiDAR, or light detection and ranging sensors, which use lasers to scan the horizon from a giant eye atop a self-driving car. LiDAR, along with cameras and radar, tells autonomous cars where they can go.
“Uber is cheating, they took our technology in an effort to win at all costs, they took our trade secrets, it’s wrong and it’s something we’re here to rectify,” said Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven.
Uber lawyers countered that Waymo was angry at losing top engineering talent and sued to stop a competitor from gaining an advantage. As for the information Levandowski might have provided, none of it was stolen information but rather amounted to whatever the new hire had in his head, they argued.
“Waymo bears the burden of establishing that each and every one of these so-called trade secrets are actual trade secrets,” said Uber attorney Bill Carmody. “Because engineers are free to go from one job to another. They don’t get lobotomies.”
Levandowski joined Uber when Kalanick paid around $680 million for his self-driving truck company, Otto, in August 2016. In May 2017, Levandowski was fired after declining to cooperate with an investigation into Waymo’s claims. He has since surfaced as founder of Way of the Future, a new religion dedicated to worshiping artificial intelligence.
Although specific discussions about self-driving car trade secrets will not be open to the media, the trial still promises its share of drama.
The star witness will be Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and former CEO who was forced out of the ride-hailing company after a series of revelations painted Uber as toxic to female employees and rife with in-house programs of questionable legality.
Kalanick has kept a low profile since leaving Uber. Before the attorneys for both companies made their opening arguments, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court commented on an apparent effort to accommodate a witness.
“I won’t name any names, but a witness who thinks he’s important wanted a private room,” Alsup said. “He’s going to have to accommodate just like the rest of us. Neither of your sides is going to get a private room just because they’re famous.”
Google email: We can be the headline or footnote
Kalanick’s bare-knuckled style of business was in evidence during Waymo’s opener, as a text Kalanick wrote to Levandowski was shared with jurors. It said: “I just see this as a race (for self-driving car technology) we’ll need to win. Second place is first loser.”
Uber’s lawyers in turn provided a frustrated internal email sent by the then head of Google’s self-driving car program, Chris Urmson, to Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, warning about the consequences of not being competitive.
“Uber is acquiring the people I suggested we hire 1.5 years ago but was denied the opportunity to do so,” Urmson wrote in early 2015. “We have a choice being the headline or the footnote on history’s book on the next revolution in transportation. Let’s make the right choice.”
Urmson made his in 2016: he left Waymo, to start his own self driving tech company, Aurora, which recently inked partnership deals with the VW Group and Hyundai.
Self-driving cars are expected to make their debut in the next two to three years as a part of ride-hailing networks that have been given the clearance to operate in particular cities and states.
Large automakers increasingly are joining forces with tech startups in order to have a stake in the lucrative new market, and some, such as Ford and General Motors, have spent $1 billion to buy such firms outright, Argo.ai and Cruise, respectively.
Although Uber’s popularity worldwide is undisputed, the company doesn’t make money with its current business model. Kalanick once said that it was critical to Uber that it eventually remove the “dude in the car.”
The trial kicked off early Monday morning, with 30 lawyers and around 20 reporters in the courtroom, and some 50 other media representatives in an overflow room.
Alsup reasserted his no-nonsense style at the outset, telling lawyers who were wrangling over whether jurors would be allowed to see videos during Waymo’s opening statement: “This is what is known as Soviet-style negotiations, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”
The judge also cautioned the jurors, who were about to hear often complex technological testimony, to focus on the facts of the case.
“This is a cardinal rule,” he said. “Not one word a lawyer says is ever evidence unless I tell you specifically you may consider it evidence. The evidence is what the witness says is evidence.”
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