Waymo did not show up to the U.S. District Court of Northern California with the intention of messing around. Instead, the self-driving wing of Google/ Alphabet came prepared to play hardball, dishing out some completely wild allegations against its former employee Anthony Levandowski and his new employer, Uber. Chief among them, Waymo alleges that Levandowski’s self-driving truck company Otto, which went viral in the fall of 2016 for delivering a bunch of beer, was nothing more than a “cover-up scheme” that let Levandowski waltz over to Uber with inside knowledge of Waymo’s proprietary technology.
“Through discovery, we’ve learned that Uber and Levandowski created a cover-up scheme for what they were doing,” Charles Verhoeven, an attorney for Waymo, Google’s self-driving-car spinoff, said in court on Wednesday. “They concocted a story for public consumption.”
Verhoeven and Waymo’s attorneys faced off in the first public hearing for a hotly anticipated legal battle on Wednesday in front of Judge William Alsup. The legal battle started after a somewhat-hilarious email screw-up in which a parts supplier that specializes in LIDAR (a common technology used in self-driving systems) mistakenly messaged Waymo a version of Uber/Otto’s plans for LIDAR, which looked suspiciously like Waymo’s own systems. Levandowski left Waymo to found Otto in January 2016, which Uber acquired in August of last year. Before he left, however, Waymo alleges that Levandowski put 14,000 proprietary files onto a personal external hard drive and took them with him. Waymo tried to effectively shut down Uber’s self-driving car division with a preliminary injunction in March.
And according to Waymo’s lawyers in court today, the whole thing was even shadier than that. In January 2016, before Levandowski left Waymo, the company’s lawyers say he was already meeting with Brian McClendon, an Uber engineer. The day after Levandowski left Waymo, unexpectedly, at the end of January, the Google company’s employees say he started raking in five million shares of Uber stock, worth $250 million, “The very next day, he’s getting awarded stock by Uber when he’s supposedly starting his own company, when he’s supposedly building his own technology, he’s secretly working for Uber,” Verhoeven (Waymo’s lawyer) said in court.
In other words, Otto was never really a company, it was just a front for Levandowski to ditch Waymo and come work for Uber. Business Insider reports that an Uber rep told reporters that the agreement on Levandowski’s Uber stock package was back-dated after Uber acquired Otto in August.
The technicalities, of course, will come in proving all this. As the New York Times’ Mike Isaac pointed out while live-tweeting the hearing today, pretty much everyone involved is tacitly admitting that Levandowski is guilty.
Instead, the burden of proof is pretty much on Waymo to prove that Uber knew and was complicit in Levandowski’s alleged crimes, and that Levandowski used the information he allegedly stole from Waymo to advance Uber’s self-driving car efforts. For that, we’ll have to keep watching the lawsuit as it goes down. But if day one is any indication, it sure won’t be boring.
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