Everyone knows that when self-driving cars finally become mainstream, it is going to radically change how we work, live, and everything else. Tech companies and automobile manufacturers have been stuck in a race to develop self-driving technology, knowing that a step ahead can give any of them a dominant advantage.
But now, Google (or rather, Waymo, which is the self-driving division of Alphabet that is Google’s parent company) launched a suit against Uber on Thursday for stealing its technology to get that step ahead. As Reuters reports, Waymo alleges that one of its former employees, Anthony Levandowski, “downloaded over 14,000 confidential files, including Lidar circuit board designs.” Levandowski used the data to found his own self-driving company Otto, which was shortly acquired by Uber. Waymo alleges that Uber is stealing its work, while Uber shot back by saying that Waymo is attempting to slow down a competitor.
It is obviously far too soon to say which side will prevail, but the bigger concern should be how this suit will affect the self-driving industry in general. This is not the first lawsuit relating to self-driving technology, as Tesla filed a lawsuit against its former Autopilot manager last month for allegedly stealing company information and trying to form his own company with said information.
The technology which Tesla, Uber, and Waymo are all fighting over is crucial to make self-driving cars a reality, and the stakes have never been higher. But those high stakes in turn could threaten the entire industry, as the self-driving industry could find itself in a wave of lawsuits as so many companies rush to develop similar technology.
The importance of lidar
Waymo is not suing Uber over something trivial. The company states in its lawsuit filing that hundreds of engineers spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars developing lidar technology, and that Otto stole it. And lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging,” is considered by many to be the technology that can make self-driving cars a reality.
Lidar is essentially a laser radar, where millions of laser beams are fired every second to map the surrounding world. Lidar is already used for other purposes such as by astronauts and farmers, but self-driving developers believe that lidar can be used to map the world around the car, providing the AI within the car with the accurate data they need to avoid accidents.
If lidar is already used for other purposes, then why are cars not using it already? Because lidar devices right now cost tens of thousands of dollars and a self-driving cars would need multiple devices, making them cost prohibitive. Algorithms are needed to calculate the data from the multiple sensors, and also account for the position of each, how the car is moving, and a thousand other factors. All of this requires a staggering amount of data, as Wired notes that covering 300 miles of traffic lanes can take up one terabyte.
The problem of Silicon Valley
Uber, Google, and other startup companies (though not Tesla, which is convinced that cameras and radar will be sufficient to make a self-driving car) are thus stuck in an intense battle to build the best and cheapest lidar sensor. But while the companies are competing, the employees are not.
Silicon Valley is a world where tech companies do not hesitate to poach talent from one another and employees leave to form their own companies all the time. In fact, Google is the biggest poacher of all, hiring over 12,000 employees from other firms according to Livemint. And when employees are moving back and forth between tech companies, it is not shocking when different companies thus end up coming up with somewhat similar ideas. Often it isn’t clear how enforceable NDAs are. And so the result will be further litigation, as tech companies end up in a legal dispute over who built or designed what first.
However, this does not mean that self-driving innovation will slow down. While Uber, Google, and other tech companies display the latest technology and litigate, actual automobile manufacturers are at work designing self-driving cars. There is the latest version of the Ford Fusion, which was unveiled in late December and is part of Ford’s plan to have a self-driving car by 2021. Other automobile manufacturers like BMW and General Motors are also at work preparing their own self-driving cars, often by working with lidar manufacturers.
The reality is that while Uber and Google could play a key role in programming self-driving cars and pushing automobile manufacturers to innovate faster, the Silicon Valley companies will likely never build a self-driving mass market car in their own right as they lack the expertise.
The lawsuit between Uber and Google is a critical fight between those two companies’ future. But self-driving car innovation will continue to push forward even if tech companies find themselves trapped in litigation. The demand for this new technology is too high for it to stall, and automobile manufacturers are already making progress towards making them a reality.
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