Alphabet's Waymo self-driving car firm sues Otto and Uber for stealing key technology

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Alphabet's Waymo on Thursday sued Uber and its subsidiary Otto, accusing the companies of stealing key self-driving car patents covering a proprietary light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, system.

In its lawsuit filed with a U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Waymo claims Otto co-founder and former employee Anthony Levandowski stole plans for a LiDAR circuit board design, a component that enables self-driving cars to "see" their surroundings, reports Recode. Levandowski allegedly downloaded the plans and 14,000 "highly confidential" documents from a Waymo company computer before leaving the company.

According to the suit, Waymo was inadvertently tipped off to Levandowski's supposed act of corporate espionage when a current employee was copied to an email thread from a LiDAR supplier working with Otto. The email, to which drawings of the LiDAR circuit board were attached, was sent out to a list of people thought to be Uber employees.

Following an investigation of Levandowski's company computer, Waymo in February filed a public records request with the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development and Department of Motor Vehicles asking for any communications the department had with Otto. In that correspondence, Otto claims to be using a custom designed LiDAR system built by its own engineers, leading Waymo to call foul.

"While Waymo developed its custom LiDAR systems with sustained effort over many years, Defendants leveraged stolen information to shortcut the process and purportedly build a comparable LiDAR system in only nine months," the suit reads. "As of August 2016, Uber had no in-house solution for LiDAR — despite 18 months with their faltering Carnegie Mellon University effort — and they acquired Otto to get it."

Along with Levandowski's alleged indiscretions, Waymo claims other former employees who later went to work at Otto downloaded "supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information" from their workstations before resigning.

Further complicating matters is Google's $250 million investment in Uber. Initially ideal bedfellows, the partnership between Alphabet and Uber has quickly devolved as the companies accelerate development of competing self-driving car technologies.

Apple, too, is rumored to be working on its own self-driving automotive systems. Once thought to be developing a full-fledged vehicle, Apple has turned its focus to supporting subsystems. Most recently, the Cupertino tech giant was said to be experimenting with virtual and augmented reality technology that can be applied to in-car features like navigation.

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