What the heck is

What the heck is… the Google Waymo vs Uber lawsuit

By Oliver Smith 9 February 2018
Uber's former CEO Travis Kalanick. Image: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images.

Explaining the buzzwords of the moment: what is the self-driving lawsuit all about and why does it matter?

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

From centaur teams to Singles’ Day we’re on a mission to explain the difficult to explain.

Today, we’re looking at a fierce battle raging right now in US courts – between Google’s self-driving group Waymo, and controversial ride-hire firm Uber.

It’s not only one of the most high-profile lawsuits the famously courtroom-shy Google has ever launched, it’s also a case that has the potential to crush one of Silicon Valley’s biggest players.

Here’s what you need to know.

Anthony Levandowski, Otto co-founder and figure at the centre of the Waymo/Uber case. Image: ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images.

What the heck is this lawsuit all about?

The story begins innocently enough, when in August 2016 Uber bought a small self-driving truck startup called Otto.

Otto was founded by Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer who’d left Google’s self-driving group (now called Waymo) earlier that year to start his own business.

After Uber bought Otto, Google began to suspect foul-play after being accidentally cc’d into suspicious emails.

Looking back over ex-employee Levandowski’s computers Google discovered that he’d downloaded 14,000 confidential files detailing the company’s laser technology which allows its vehicles to ‘see’ the real world.

Google subsequently filed its lawsuit against Uber, alleging the company was aware of and maybe even complicit in the thefts of its trade secrets.

Uber fired Levandowski after the lawsuit was announced, and denies any knowledge of his past behaviour.

Why is this so important?

Self-driving tech is seen by many to be the holy grail of the technology industry.

A breakthrough in this space, whether by Google, Uber, Tesla, or even Apple, could open a path to huge profits.

Interestingly, the ‘Lidar’ laser technology at the centre of this case is likely to be already irrelevant.

Uber is thought to have already moved its self-driving tech away from that introduced by Levandowski in the year since the lawsuit was filed.

That means an injunction to block Uber from using it, which would likely be granted, is mostly meaningless.

Likewise, if Uber wins it doesn’t really ‘get’ anything from Google, it merely avoids any huge fines.

And the real damage, should Uber lose, is the financial cost.

Why is the case all about money?

It’s already been reported that Waymo was looking to settle for $1.4bn and a public apology from Uber, but this was rejected outright – a rookie error in hindsight.

If Uber loses now it could face an even larger charge, which could be detrimental to its business.

For context, Uber is thought to be burning through a whopping $2bn a year from its current global operations.

A major fine could cost the company the equivalent of a year of its finances, a potential disaster.

As we near the end of the first week of the trial, it seems to be going pretty badly for Uber.

Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick spent three hours on the witness stand and, unsurprisingly given the exposure of his behaviour building a sexist workplace, undoubtedly came across very badly.

Kalanick appeared to encourage the takeover of Otto, possibly with an awareness that Levandowski might have taken documents from Google, all in the hopes of getting Otto’s ‘laser sauce’.

The case is expected to wrap up in the next fortnight, then it’s just up to the jury to see who they side with…

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.