In the ongoing legal battle between Uber and Alphabet-owned Waymo, Uber announced this week that it has fired Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of stealing Waymo’s self-driving intellectual property when he left his job at Google to start his own company, Otto (via The New York Times). In the original lawsuit, Waymo claimed that when Uber acquired Otto, Levandowski’s stolen trade secrets came with the purchase, mainly centering around Waymo’s LiDAR system.
In the months following Waymo’s filing, Uber denied the accusations and “pressured Mr. Levandowski to cooperate” with the court. When he was ordered by a federal judge to give the court any evidence related to Waymo’s accusations, as well as a testimony, he was said to have asserted his Fifth Amendment rights in order to avoid self-incrimination. The judge gave Levandowski an internal deadline to hand over the evidence in question, and when he missed it Uber decided to fire him.
According to legal analysts watching the case, if Levandowski continued to be employed by Uber, “the company risked being tarnished…as if it were indirectly condoning his actions.”
“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” Angela L. Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, wrote in an email to employees. “Over that same period, Uber has urged Anthony to fully cooperate in helping the court get to the facts and ultimately helping to prove our case.”
She added: “We take our obligations under the court order very seriously, and so we have chosen to terminate his employment at Uber.”
When the lawsuit was filed in February, Levandowski and “other former Waymo employees” were accused of stealing around 14,000 confidential Waymo files that included data on Waymo’s laser-based radar (LiDAR) system, which the company called “one of the most powerful parts” of its self-driving technology. Federal prosecutors began investigating the case earlier in May, while also partially granting Waymo’s request for an injunction against Uber’s self-driving efforts as the case continues.
Besides Waymo’s lawsuit, Uber has also faced troubled waters this year when the Department of Justice began investigating the ride-hailing company over its use of “greyball” software that let drivers operate in places where the Uber app is restricted.
It also came out this year that Apple CEO Tim Cook threatened to remove Uber from the iOS App Store in 2015 after discovering that Uber was secretly “fingerprinting” iPhones that used the app. Uber said the decision was made to prevent fraud, making sure users could no longer create multiple fake accounts on one device to collect new account bonuses, despite knowing that its method was in direct violation of Apple’s app privacy guidelines.
Although Uber’s self-driving future is uncertain, Waymo has made progress in recent months with the launch of an autonomous car program in Phoenix, as well as the announcement of a partnership with Lyft that plans “to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream.”
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