SAN FRANCISCO – Uber was either a cheating competitor willing to break the law to win the race to develop self-driving cars or the victim of an unproven conspiracy theory stitched together by its main rival, Waymo, jurors heard in opening statements of a trade secrets trial.
The first salvos were delivered Monday to a 10-person jury in San Francisco federal court in a civil lawsuit that could help determine who emerges in the forefront of the autonomous car business nearly a year after Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car unit Waymo sued rival Uber Technologies Inc.
The case hinges on whether Uber used apparent trade secrets to advance its autonomous vehicle program. Waymo’s allegation is that its former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files in December 2015 containing designs for autonomous vehicles before going to work for Uber and leading its self-driving car unit in 2016.
“Waymo wants you to believe that Anthony Levandowski got together with Uber as part of some grand conspiracy to cheat and take trade secrets,” Uber attorney Bill Carmody said in his opening statement to the jury. “But like most conspiracy stories it just doesn’t make sense when you get the whole story.”
Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven told the jury that the competitive pressures were so great to develop self-driving cars that the then-chief executive of ride-hailing firm Uber, Travis Kalanick, decided that “winning was more important than obeying the law.”
“Losing was not an option” for Uber in the battle where “one competitor decided they needed to win at all costs,” Verhoeven said.
“We’re bringing this case because Uber is cheating. They took our technology … to win this race at all costs,” Verhoeven said.
Uber attorney Carmody said the “elephant in the courtroom” was that, despite the downloads by Levandowski, Google’s proprietary information never made it to Uber and into its self-driving technology.
“There is no connection whatsoever between any files he downloaded … and what’s in here,” Carmody said, pointing to an Uber-designed Lidar sensor sitting in front of him, a light-based sensor that is crucial to autonomous driving and central to the case.
“There’s not a single piece of Google proprietary information at Uber,” he added. “Nothing, zero, period.”
After what is expected to be two weeks of testimony, the jury will have to decide whether the eight apparent trade secrets on which the case hinges were indeed such, and not common knowledge, and whether Uber improperly acquired them, used them and benefited from them.
Levandowski, regarded as a visionary in autonomous technology, is not a defendant in the case but is on Waymo’s witness list. Levandowski was fired from Uber last May because the company said he refused to cooperate with Uber in the Waymo lawsuit and did not hand over information requested of him in the case.
Waymo and Uber are part of a crowded field of automakers and technology companies competing to build fleets of self-driving cars that could transform urban transportation systems.
Waymo has estimated damages in the case at about $1.9 billion. Uber rejects the financial damages claim. Still, the lawsuit has hobbled Uber’s self-driving car program, with Uber attorney Carmody telling the judge in a pretrial hearing that the case “is the biggest in the history of Uber.”
Waymo intends to call Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik as it first witness, court documents show. Uber has co-founder and former CEO Kalanick at the top of its witness list.
There are a total of 99 potential witnesses between the two companies, according to court documents, including Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Benchmark venture capitalist and Uber investor Bill Gurley, and Alphabet executive David Drummond.
The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a separate criminal investigation into what transpired, according to court filings.