tuesday, 16 may of 2017

Uber engineer barred from work on key self-driving car technology

A judge in San Francisco has banned the top engineer on Uber’s self-driving car programme from any work on a type of laser sensor known as Lidar, but stopped short of a harsher injunction, a move that will come as a relief to the embattled ride-hailing company.

Uber is being sued by Waymo, the self-driving vehicles unit of Alphabet, over allegations that its former employee Anthony Levandowski stole trade secrets that were later used by Uber.

“Waymo has supplied a compelling record that Levandowski pilfered over 14,000 files from Waymo, and that Uber knew or should have known as much when it brought him on board,” wrote Judge William Alsup in his ruling.

The judge has referred the case to criminal prosecutors for investigation, a highly unusual move that could lead to further charges, if the prosecutors take up the case.

The stakes are high because Uber and Waymo are both competing to introduce fleets of autonomous robo-taxis that will in future provide transportation services in urban areas. Waymo announced a partnership with Lyft, Uber’s chief rival in the US, on Monday morning.

The judge’s ruling may have limited immediate impact on Uber’s self-driving research programme, because Mr Levandowski already recused himself from all work on Lidar sensors as the trial was progressing.

Judge Alsup has also demanded that Uber compel Mr Levandowski and other employees to return the document that he took from Waymo while employed there. Mr Levandowski worked on Waymo’s self-driving car for eight years, then left to found the start-up Otto, which was quickly acquired by Uber for $680m.

The evidence indicates that “at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber’s own Lidar development efforts”, Judge Alsup wrote.

However, Waymo was not spared from criticism either, and the judge declined to halt Uber’s work on any specific technology. “It has become clear that Waymo has both over-reached in defining its trade secrets and made moving targets out of its asserted trade secrets to evade defensive arguments,” he said.

Judge Alsup also declared that Waymo’s patent infringement claims were meritless, meaning that the bulk of the case will rest on whether Waymo can now prove that Uber used its trade secrets.

Both Uber and Waymo said they welcomed the decision.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilising all of its self-driving technology,” said a spokesperson for the ride-hailing app. “We look forward to moving towards trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up.”

Waymo said it intended to fully use the new powers of expedited discovery that Judge Alsup granted in the order, which will allow it, and the court, to conduct a more thorough search of Uber’s records.

“We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents . . . and to formally bar Mr Levandowski from working on the technology,” said a spokesperson. “The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct.”

A persistent sore point in the lawsuit has been the refusal of Mr Levandowski to co-operate with the investigation. His lawyers say he is asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. Judge Alsup has complained that Mr Levandowski’s stance is obstructing the court from fully discovering the facts of the case.

Uber and Alphabet were once close allies, and Alphabet even owns a significant stake in Uber after investing in the company in 2013. But last year Alphabet’s David Drummond had to step down from Uber’s board due to conflict of interest. And now this high-stakes legal battle has consumed these two Silicon Valley giants as they race to get self-driving fleets on the road and available to the public.

(Published by Financial Times - May 15, 2017)

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