The head of Uber's self-driving unit suffered a blow on Tuesday in a legal battle with Waymo over whether he stole its self-driving technology.
A federal appeals court on Tuesday denied Anthony Levandowski’s request to avoid self-incrimination by withholding certain documents from the court’s view. (Levandowski, who is at the center of the lawsuit directed at Uber, had said that producing these documents might infringe on his Fifth Amendment rights.) That means Waymo’s lawyers will be able to see potentially critical information that Levandowski and his legal team have not presented to the court, and then make a case for those documents to be turned over. It’s a critical juncture in the case: Uber says it does not have the files Levandowski allegedly stole, but Waymo says that’s in part because Uber has has not examined Levandowski’s devices.
“The disclosure of this information could put substantially more pressure on Levandowski,” Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who is not involved in the case, told BuzzFeed News. “If in fact he is worried about his criminal liability, Waymo getting more critical information might make him feel stressed.”
A spokesperson for Uber said the company did not have a comment. Waymo did not immediately return a request for comment.
The technology at hand is called LiDAR, which stands for “light detection and ranging” systems, which uses lasers to help self-driving cars see and navigate the world. Waymo alleges Levandowski downloaded 14,000 company files before leaving the company to start Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber purchased last year.
Waymo has asked a federal judge to halt Uber’s self-driving program to stop the company from using the allegedly stolen technology. Uber disputed that request, saying that its own work is “fundamentally different” from Waymo’s designs.
Judge William Alsup told Uber’s lawyers during a tutorial of LiDAR technology on April 14 that while the ride-hail giant’s self-driving vehicles may use LiDAR systems that are different from Waymo’s designs, it’s possible Uber could have worked on alternate designs that have not yet made it to the prototype stage – designs that perhaps used Waymo information.
“You always talk about the professor, but you never say what he was working on,” Alsup said, according to transcripts of court proceedings viewed by BuzzFeed News. “Well, why did you hire that guy for $680 million if he wasn’t doing anything? So I wonder, what was he working on?”
Uber replied to that question in a court filing on Tuesday. “Mr. Levandowski was not a LiDAR engineer, but contributed some high-level ideas to the concept,” the filing says. Uber described him as a manager who “did a lot of cheerleading on the sidelines” at Otto, and said that after taking the helm of Uber’s self-driving team, Levandowski was “much more focused on management duties. Mr. Levandowski does not provide input on detailed technical LiDAR design choices at Uber.”
Earlier this month, Waymo’s lawyers told a judge that they found evidence that Uber’s lawyers were anticipating litigation with Google if they purchased Levandowski’s startup as early as three days after Levandowski resigned from Waymo.
Uber’s official reply to Waymo’s allegations is due to the court by Friday.