Since 2009 Waymo has developed and delivered milestones in autonomous vehicle software and hardware. Now they, and by proxy Google, are suing Uber and its subsidiary Otto for what it alleges is misappropriation of trade secrets and infringement of patents.
Waymo has filed thousands of patents in its missions to make a fully autonomous car. Waymo explain in a Medium post how hundreds of engineers working for thousands of hours at a cost of millions to make its LiDAR performance so good.
“Out of 635,868 autonomous test miles driven in California, it reported just 124 disengagements for the year. On a per-thousand mile basis, the system disengaged just 0.2 times, a rate exponentially better than reported by any other company.” (Forbes)
Anthony Levandowski was one of them. Levandowski actually was a founding member of Waymo, when it was called the less catchy ‘Google self-driving car project’. He’s also worked on autonomous vehicles throughout his career. It is alleged Levandowksi took 14,000 proprietary design files and transferred them to an hard drive six weeks before he resigned. Levandowski set up a company called Otto which made software and hardware for commercial self-driving vehicles. Otto was bought by Uber when it was six months old, mostly for its LiDAR designs.
On the 24th of February Uber dismissed the allegations as a “baseless attempt to slow down a competitor”. The intertwined nature of Silicon Valley has thrown up the interesting fact that Google, or Alphabet, is actually an investor in Uber.
Is there any point to the Waymo lawsuit?
Google are saying they put a lot of work into this. It is their reward to claim. Is self-interest evil? Tech companies in particular are acquiring each other for the technical prowess within them. Not strictly the quality of the product they’re currently working on.
All those working on autonomous vehicles understand the widespread good they could provide. Progress towards achieving some utilitarian good is hard when knowledge gets siloed. Companies try to claim intellectual rights over something that could have been designed by someone else. This happens all the time, remember Leibnez? Owning an idea doesn’t stop you owning the person who came up with the idea. If you change job will memories need wiping to prevent intellectual theft?
“What we’ve seen in the automated driving world is patents getting filed for silly things, for trivial things, for essential things that everybody needs to do. Google has patented driving slightly to the left side of a lane when you’re passing a truck. Everybody does that and every automated vehicle is going to do that. But that’s their patent.” (Forbes)
Smartphone makers conducted similarly pointless legal battles over the position of buttons. For all the talk of a sharing economy companies in the promoting this message seem to bicker a lot at each other over general things their customers seem to agree on. User friendly experiences are a common good. Scarcity, perceived or real, precludes these petty squabbles over rights to greed.