Geo Week News

February 24, 2017

Lidar Litigation: Waymo Sues Uber Over Crucial Autonomous Vehicle Sensor


Waymo, corporate sibling of Google responsible for the development of autonomous vehicles, is suing Otto and its owner Uber “for misappropriating trade secrets and infringing on our patents.”

The suit claims that Otto has stolen the design of its lidar sensor from Waymo. Allegedly, when former Waymo manager Anthony Levandowski resigned and moved over to Otto, he “downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s lidar and circuit board.”

In a Medium post, Waymo alleges that Levandowski undertook some serious corporate espionage to sneak the files over to his new employer. He not only used special software, but also wiped his laptop “in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.” (Emphasis on “attempt.”)

So how did Waymo find out? Email. One of the company’s third-party suppliers inadvertently cc’ed them on a message with attached drawings of Otto’s lidar circuit board. Waymo employees opened this attachment (a shady proposition in itself) and saw that the drawing looked a lot like Waymo’s sensor.

Next, they filed a public records request in Nevada, and got ahold of a document in which Otto told regulators that it had developed an in-house custom lidar solution. Waymo took this as the “final piece of the puzzle” and filed.

Companies looking to develop their own self-driving vehicles benefit from developing lidar sensors in-house. Though this kind of vertical integration likely won’t lower costs much beyond, say, Velodyne’s forthcoming automotive lidar megafactory, it does allow for sensors to be produced exactly to spec.

As for the actual specs of this particular lidar, they’re still very closely protected so we could only speculate as to why Waymo sees it as such a big deal. According to the company, “the configuration and specifications of our lidar sensor are unique to Waymo. Misappropriating this technology is asking to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.”

Jalopnik quips: “The self-driving tech wars have begun, everyone.”

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