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Uber’s self-driving car program continues…for now

Anthony Levandowski (far right) must steer clear of Uber's self-driving program (Photo: Flickr, Transport Topics - CC BY-SA 2.0s)

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Kate Mann
Kate Mann
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Judge’s order shines new light on injunction verdict…and it makes good reading for Uber.

Having ruled on Friday that the case be forwarded to the U.S. attorney for criminal investigation, Judge Alsup wrote an order on Monday that detailed his decision regarding Waymo’s request for an injunction.

Waymo (Google’s self-driving care project) had hoped that the request would be fully granted thus forcing its fellow Silicon Valley resident to stop all work on its self-driving car program on the basis of claims that it was using stolen Waymo technology. However, according to the order, the injunction was only partly granted and partly denied. But what does that mean for the fate of Uber?

Well for a start, it means Uber does not have to stop its self-driving testing. However, Judge Alsup did rule that Anthony Levandowski – the former Google employee now at Uber that allegedly made off with 14,000 documents relating to LIDAR design – does have to cease any work on said technology until the case concludes.   

According to WIRED, a Waymo spokesperson said: “We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology.” Nevertheless, one could argue that Uber is the winner in this round – and it too hailed the order as positive: “We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LIDAR,” said an Uber representative according to WIRED.

In terms of why the injunction was only partially granted, Judge Alsup concluded that Waymo’s lawyers had somewhat overreached in their request to totally shut down Uber’s testing. According to Ars Technica, the judge disagreed with Waymo as to what exactly constitutes a “trade secret” as well as some patent infringement accusations which he saw as “meritless”.

In saying that, his order certainly indicates that he believes Levandowski did download the 14,000 files from servers before leaving the company. He went on to write that Uber "likely knew or at least should have known" this and that those files "likely contain at least some trade secrets," hence granting some "provisional relief" for Waymo.

Good news for Uber it seems – or is it? Yes, it can continue its work on autonomous driving but the judge’s order does point to some facts that might just take some explaining down the line. The similarities between Waymo and Uber’s LIDAR circuit boards and diode arrangements for example, were described as being “suspicious”. The judge also questioned why Uber apparently did not require Levandowski to sign a document that guarantees new employees don’t bring intellectual property from previous jobs – as it had done for other former Googlers.

So while Uber engineers and researchers may be able to keep busy for now, it is the firm’s lawyers that will be spending long days sorting through reams of documents in order to return them to their rightful owner by May 31 – the date set by the judge in the order.

Read the full article on WIRED and Ars Technica.

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