Culture

Waymo-Uber Trial Exposes the Nasty Underbelly of Silicon Valley

One of the most anticipated trials in technology began this week between two powerhouse Silicon Valley companies. Uber and Google met in San Francisco’s District Court for the Northern District of California on Monday to begin the long-awaited trial in which Uber is being charged with appropriating trade secrets from Waymo, Google’s self-driving car division. Waymo is asking for $1.9 billion in damages in the civil trial.

Uber has always been very open about the need to develop self-driving cars, calling it existential to their survival. They believe these vehicles are needed to reduce their costs and be competitive, and they want to be first. That’s a good motive. The question is how far they would go to win.

Uber is being accused of using trade secrets it obtained illegally from Waymo to advance its development work. Waymo claims that its former lead engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who was hired by Uber in 2016, brought with him more than 14,000 confidential files that he downloaded in December 2015 while still at Waymo.

After Mr. Levandowski left Waymo, he founded a self-driving truck company, Otto, that was then quickly bought by Uber for $562 million. Waymo’s lawyers say this was a scheme for Uber to get access to Waymo’s proprietary technology.

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber during this time, noted that his company was behind in a laser sensor technology called LIDAR, which is critical to self-driving cars. “We wanted to hire Anthony,” and “wanted somebody to build a team to make lasers,” Kalanick said.

The court heard opening arguments on Monday from Uber’s attorney, Bill Carmody. Addressing the 10-person jury, he said, “Waymo wants you to believe that Anthony Levandowski got together with Uber as part of some grand conspiracy to cheat and take trade secrets, but like most conspiracy stories it just doesn’t make sense when you get the whole story.”

Waymo’s chief executive officer, John Krafcik, asked why he was suing. “We believe in fair competition. We believe in accelerating the technology that is going to save a lot of lives in this world. What we came to find is aspects of our technology were taken from us in an unfair fashion and it was important for us to correct that.”

Levandowski, a pioneering engineer in self-driving technology and central character in this drama, is not a defendant and will not testify. He was fired from Uber in May 2017 after failing to cooperate with Uber’s own internal investigation and pleading the Fifth.

What makes this case so fascinating is that Kalanick has a history of breaking and flouting laws and regulations around the world, and being ethically challenged in the way he ran the company and treated his employees, as Uber catapulted to become one of the most valuable startup companies ever.

His numerous ethical lapses and unsavory behavior eventually forced him out of his job, but he still remains director of the company. Based on his past behavior, many see these latest charges as just more of the same and fitting his pattern.

Kalanick was one of the first witnesses to testify. Other notable witnesses expected to join him on the stand include the founders of Google — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — and some of Uber’s early investors.

In his testimony on Tuesday, Waymo lawyers pressed Kalanick on the theft of trade issue, pointing out how he and Levandowski met several times while Levandowski was still a Google employee.

Waymo lawyers presented an Uber visitor pass and notes from the meeting, while Kalanick claimed he had no recollection of such a meeting. Based on Tuesday’s proceeding, this is expected to be a highly contentious trial that will lay bare the nastier side of Silicon Valley.

For Waymo to win, it needs to prove that not only did Uber get access to the 14,000 documents, but the technology was used it in its development efforts.