By: Brian Gauthier

Google parent company, Alphabet, is again making headlines with a recent lawsuit aimed at protecting the trade secrets of its self-driving car division, Waymo LLC.[1]  A recent lawsuit filed by Waymo alleges Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo employee, secretly downloaded thousands of files pertaining to Waymo’s self-driving navigation software in December 2015, before leaving the company last year.[2]  Waymo claims that Mr. Levandowski’s actions are in violation of the Defense of Trade Secrets Act, California Uniform Trade Secret Act, patent infringement, and the California business and professional code.[3] The lawsuit also alleges that Levandowski used the technical information he obtained to start a self-driving truck company called Otto, which was acquired by Uber in 2016.  Waymo further suggests that Uber used technical information obtained from Otto (which Waymo alleges was obtained illegally by Levandowski) to develop Uber’s LiDAR system in only nine months – a process that Waymo claims took more than seven years of research and development to achieve.[4]  LiDAR works by bouncing millions of laser beams off surrounding objects and measuring how long it takes for the light to reflect, painting a 3D picture of the world. [5]

The Wall Street Journal recounts in vivid detail how Levandowski met with Uber before starting Otto and that he did so with the specific intent of eventually selling the company to Uber.[6]  As proof, Waymo claims that Uber acquired Otto because “Uber had no in-house solution for LiDAR” and wanted to “shortcut the [development] process.”[7]

Alphabet and Uber were not always rivals.  Indeed, the two companies have often collaborated to advance each others’ interests, such as Google providing mapping data for Uber’s ride-hailing service.[8]  This lawsuit represents the growing rift between the two companies, especially as they branch out from their traditional business models.

As Waymo adroitly explains in its complaint, they had “devoted seven years to research and development. [Waymo] had amassed nearly one and a half million miles of self-driving experience on public roads and billions of miles of test data via simulation.”[9]  Waymo seems to be suggesting that, theft of trade secrets aside, any company that wants to legitimately compete with their technology must make substantial time and money investments into research and development.  Of course, requiring companies to do this is contrary to established business practices.  While Waymo’s stated interest is preventing the dissemination of its proprietary technology, the actual effect of a case like this could be a chilling of the competitive self-driving car market.

It is clear that many in the tech and auto industries are making use of the courts to protect their trade secrets.  Waymo’s lawsuit follows a similar suit filed by Tesla against one of its former directors of its Autopilot program, accusing him of recruiting Tesla engineers to create his own autonomous car startup.[10]  The nascent self-driving car industry poses problems for those wishing to break into the field.  For any new entrant hoping to break into the field, that entity will almost certainly try to speed up research and development by hiring individuals with expertise.  It is precisely this expertise and technical know-how that companies such as Waymo and Tesla are trying control by limiting competitor’s access to talented individuals with experience in the industry.

Self-driving car technology is a rapidly developing field.  If Uber is forced to settle or loses at trial, other companies will be discouraged from pursuing growth through recruitment of experts.  I believe that Waymo has narrowly tailored their complaint to only include the theft of tangible documents and technology.  However, trade secret cases – especially in nascent fields such as self-driving automobiles – should always be balanced against the public interest of allowing the best ideas to float to the top.

[1] See Tom Higgins & Jack Nicas, Alphabet’s Waymo Sues Uber Over Self-Driving Car Secrets, (Feb. 23, 2017 9:11 PM), Wall St. J.,

[2] Id.; supra note 1.

[3] Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., et al, No. 17 – 939 (N.D. Cal. Filed Feb. 23, 2017).

[4] Waymo LLC, No. 17 – 939.

[5] Waymo Team, A note on our lawsuit against Otto and Uber, Medium: Waymo (Feb. 23, 2017),

[6] Supra, note 1.

[7]  Waymo LLC, No. 17 – 939.

[8] Supra, note 1.

[9] Waymo LLC, No. 17 – 939.

[10] Tim Higgins, Tesla Sues Former Autopilot Director for Improper Recruiting, Wall St. J. (Jan. 26, 2017, 4:39 PM),

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