A federal judge has ordered Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer at the heart of a legal dispute with Uber, from working on any lidar-related work.
Judge William Alsup’s order makes official a move that Uber had already made when it preemptively demoted Levandowski from leading its self-driving-car project and barred him from working on lidar.
Waymo sued Uber earlier this year, accusing Uber of stealing trade secrets and intellectual property it had developed related to lidar, the radar-like sensors that self-driving cars use to navigate.
Waymo had initially made a larger bid to stop Uber’s self-driving-car research, claiming that the company was infringing on its patents and trade secrets. The judge did not order Uber to stop any of its research, however, other than not allowing Levandowski or any other Uber employee from using or consulting the allegedly stolen files.
While Alsup’s order is the third blow to Uber in the week, it is by far the lightest.
Last week, Alsup dismissed Uber’s bid to send the case out of the public’s eye and denied its motion to compel arbitration. Instead, the judge referred it to the US attorney for a possible criminal investigation, an escalation in a case that has already pitted two of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights against each other.
“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LiDAR,” an Uber representative said. “We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up.”
Levandowski in the crosshairs
Despite not being named in Waymo’s lawsuit, Levandowski’s actions still remain the “root problem” of the case, Alsup says.
Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files before he left Google’s self-driving car project, which later became Waymo, and took the confidential information to Uber to jump-start its nascent self-driving car efforts. Furthermore, the evidence shows that Levandowski and Uber planned for the ride-hailing company to acquire his new startups and make him head of the self-driving car program, Alsup says.
“The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo’s intellectual property; that at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber’s own LiDAR development efforts; and that at least some of said information likely qualifies for trade secret protection,” Alsup wrote.
As a result, Alsup formalized Uber’s self-imposed ban to remove Levandowski from Lidar-related work and and prohibit him from using or consulting Waymo’s 14,000 stolen files.
“Misuse of that treasure trove remains an ever-present danger wholly at his whim,”Alsup wrote.
Misuse of that treasure trove remains an ever-present danger wholly at his whim.
As part of the order, Uber is ordered to hand over all of the materials Levandowski and other employees had downloaded to Waymo by May 31.
The company also to has to hand over a detailed log of “conferences, meetings, phone calls, one-on-one conversations, texts, emails, letters, memos, and voicemails – wherein Anthony Levandowski mentioned LiDAR to any officer, director, employee, agent, supplier, or consultant of defendants” by the end of June.
“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions. We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr Levandowski from working on the technology,” a Waymo spokesperson said. “The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct.”
Waymo falls short
While Waymo is seemingly satisfied with Alsup’s order, the judge did give the company a slap on the wrist for what he called “litigation gamesmanship” when it came to the claims of trade secrets and patent infringement.
To start, “Waymo’s patent theories are too weak to support any provisional relief,” Alsup wrote, and he discredited Waymo’s expert who argued that it did infringe as “flat-out wrong.”
When it came to trade secret misappropriation, the judge said Waymo’s claims “follow a pattern of claiming broad swaths of solutions to general competing considerations and engineering tradeoffs rather than the single, specific solution adopted by Waymo.”
The broad scope of Waymo’s supposed trade secrets were “breathtaking” and one trade secret that Alsup debunked in the order was “nothing more than Optics 101.”
While there were a few trade secrets that Alsup could have potentially blocked Uber from using, the wide-ranging maner in which Waymo claimed information as trade secrets meant they were overly broad and likely contained general knowledge information that couldn’t be protected.
“Waymo’s gamesmanship on this score undermines its credibility on this motion,” Alsup wrote.
While Uber won’t be stopped from working on its Lidar development, it will have Waymo looking over its shoulder the whole time. As part of Alsup’s ruling, Waymo’s lawyers and a single expert will have the right to inspect any of Uber’s ongoing Lidar development, including everything from emails to work orders to its code base, regardless of whether the work results in a prototype or device.