Piles and piles of crazy and that’s not even mentioning the shooting shutdown
When autonomous vehicle upstart Waymo sued Uber for patent infringement in February, at first it seemed like a classic Silicon Valley legal ploy: tie down your rival as you expand your market, and perhaps extract millions in a legal settlement in the process.
But as was made plain in court in San Francisco over the past few weeks, the lawsuit appears to be no backhand business stratagem: the man Uber hired to head up its self-driving car department had gone to some lengths to steal proprietary technology from his former employer, Waymo’s lawyers alleged.
Anthony Levandowski worked as an engineer at Google-owned Waymo but left to start up his own company, called Otto, which would focus on autonomous trucks. Otto was later acquired by Uber for $680m.
However, Waymo started growing suspicious of Uber’s technology shortly afterwards, and quickly concluded that it was exactly the same as its technology.
It now accuses Levandowski of stealing 14,000 confidential files and claimed in court today that the entire Otto company setup was nothing but a legal ruse cooked up by Levandowski and Uber senior management to hide the fact that he was effectively working for Uber the day he walked out the door at Waymo.
The evidence? A stock option that vested on January 28, 2016 – the day after Levandowski resigned from Waymo, giving no notice. The option was for five million Uber shares – worth more than $250m.
Uber claims it backdated its stock option to the formation of the startup that it was acquiring – something it claims is common. Waymo’s lawyers are skeptical to say the least.
They also pointed in court to emails between Uber executives that discussed the creation of a company – “NewCo” – in relation to an upcoming meeting with Levandowski.
On one, an attachment titled “NewCo_Milestones_v5” was sent to Uber’s then-vice president of mapping Brian McClendon (he resigned in March) with the note: “This list of deliverables is a high bar for sure. But then again so is what [Levandowski] is asking for in $$.” Waymo’s lawyers argue this is a clear sign of collusion and a quid pro quo: money for technology.
The lawyers also complained that they had been prevented from seeing approximately 3,500 emails and documents from Uber and Levandowski, the implication being: if we found this in the docs they shared, what do you think is in the rest of it?
On that point, Uber may be in trouble: Judge William Alsup is a big fan of transparency and repeatedly asked why court documents should not be made public. However, Alsup had not completely bought in, noting that Waymo had sued Uber and not Levandowski personally. “What if it turns out that Uber is totally innocent?,” he asked, and the company simply paid for a gifted engineer with no idea he was downloading documents?
As might be expected, especially from a company with Uber’s reputation for aggressive tactics, the company’s lawyers did not take all this kindly.
Uber’s main lawyer, Arturo González, lit up the courtroom railing about Waymo and arguing forcefully why it should not have to hand over any more documents. Uber had “nothing to hide,” he argued, and would make the company’s controversial CEO Travis Kalanick available for deposition. Levandowski, meanwhile, is pleading the fifth.
Bang to rights
But amid all the fire and brimstone, it quickly became clear that Uber was not planning to argue that Levandowski did not steal the files. Even the judge conceded that the evidence against Levandowski was pretty convincing, albeit without a “smoking gun,” and congratulated Waymo’s lawyer for compiling it all, even calling Levandowski “radioactive.”
The argument then turned to whether Waymo should be granted a preliminary injunction against Uber that would effectively freeze its self-driving tech efforts. Uber said it was happy to agree to take Levandowski out of the equation, but didn’t think it should be prevented from working on the technology – which Waymo claims is theirs. Uber claims it doesn’t even use the technology at the center of the dispute. Meanwhile, Levandowski has been shifted away from his role heading Uber’s self-driving research for at least the remainder of the case.
And then, just when things couldn’t get any crazier, the courtroom was today interrupted by an announcement that everyone should shelter in place: there had been a police shooting just outside the courthouse and everyone was on lockdown. It has since emerged that two police officers encountered a man stabbing another on the main Market street and shot the stabber, who died.
When the lockdown was lifted, Judge Alsup said the afternoon session would be held in private. And that ended another day of what promises to be a fascinating and extraordinary case about the ethics – or lack of them – in Silicon Valley when it comes to one of its hottest technologies. ®