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Google accuses Uber of creating a “shell company”

Will Uber have to put its driverless ambitions on hold? (Photo: Uber)

The plot thickens. Allegations fly as the much-anticipated court hearing between two driverless rivals takes place in San Francisco.

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The plot thickens. Allegations fly as the much-anticipated court hearing between two driverless rivals takes place in San Francisco.

In February this year, Google filed a lawsuit against Uber. The search engine giant claims Uber stole trade secrets from them, and is now using the information to develop LiDAR sensor technology. At the high-profile court hearing this week, more details and accusations emerged, yet the full picture remains unclear.

The allegations revolve around Otto – the self-driving truck start-up created by former Google staff and purchased by Uber in 2016. The suggestion is that when Anthony Levandowski (co-founder of Google’s self-driving car project) left to establish Otto, he downloaded and took significant amounts of sensitive data with him. 14,000 files in fact. And that Uber knew about it. 

After weeks of investigation, lawyers representing Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo arrived in court this week with a bold claim. As reported by the Economic Times, they are now accusing Uber of a “cover up scheme”. They believe Otto was part of a plan developed by the ride-hailing firm and Levandowski, with the terms for Uber to acquire the start-up already negotiated. In other words, as suggested by Business Insider, it was a shell company.

"Through discovery we’ve learned that Uber and Levandowski created a cover up scheme for what they were doing. They concocted a story for public consumption," Waymo’s lawyer Charles Verhoeven is reported to have said.  

According to the Economic Times, among Google’s main new evidence at the hearing was a document demonstrating that Levandowski was awarded Uber shares in January 2016 – just one day after he left Google and shortly before Uber acquired Otto (for more than half a billion dollars). As stated in a Forbes article, Waymo’s lawyers suggest this means Uber was paying Levandowski before he officially began working for the company.  

As outlined by Forbes, Uber’s primary defense is the lack of evidence to suggest that they were aware of Levandowski’s actions. Interestingly, Waymo says Uber is now blocking access to documents and emails that could shed more light on this issue. The ride-hailing company also says the technology they are developing is significantly different to that of Google. Still, shortly before the hearing, Levandowski stepped down as head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.  

At this point, it seems much is based on allegations rather than concrete proof. Whilst, as reported by Forbes, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup is sure the downloads occurred, the level to which Uber and Levandowski colluded is harder to define. "So what do we do? Where there’s an innocent explanation and a guilty explanation," the judge asked. With the outcome crucial to the future of Uber’s driverless ambitions, since Waymo is requesting a temporary injunction preventing their rival's work in the field, these are certainly tense times. A ruling is expected soon.

Read more from the Economic Times here and Forbes here.

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