Self-Driving Auto Industry is a Race for Dominance

March 27, 2017

Google’s sister company and self-driving car developer, Waymo, has sued Uber and its self-driving truck subsidiary, Otto, over alleged trade secret theft. The controversy surrounds the LiDAR technology developed by Anthony Levandowski and his alleged download of 14,000 files related to the sensors while he was working at Waymo and before he began working for Uber.  Levandowski is a pioneer in LiDAR  (Light Detection and Ranging), a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. This technology is the cornerstone of all self-driving technology. The allegations in the complaint are focused on the similarities between the LiDAR circuit boards developed by both companies and Levandowski’s effort to erase his activities on his company laptop.

Because of the high stakes involved in this exploding business, Waymo parent company Alphabet is following a litigation strategy utilized by Zenimax in its intellectual property theft action against a former programmer that alleged took the technology to Oculus, a virtual reality startup. Both companies applied for preliminary injunctions early in an aggressive move to slow down the development of the rival tech. The injunction specifically requests that Uber shut down all of its self-driving vehicles. The allegations supporting the application for the injunction also name two other engineers who followed Levandowski to Uber and was supported by Google forensic security engineer testimony concerning the company’s virtual tracking of the alleged theft.

Some companies take this a step further and block employees from being able to take positions at rival companies by invoking the doctrine of inevitable. Courts consider several factors when determining whether to apply the doctrine of inevitable disclosure, including (1) the circumstances surrounding the termination of employment; (2) the importance of the employee’s job or position; (3) the type of work performed by the employee; (4) the kind of information sought to be protected and the value of the information; (5) the degree of competition between the former and new employer; (6) the new employer’s efforts to safeguard the former employer’s trade secrets; (7) the former employer’s lack of forthrightness in his activities before accepting his job and in his testimony; and (8) the degree of similarity between the employee’s former and current position. This doctrine can be tough to apply, but IBM was able use this theory to stop a programming executive from moving to Apple in 2008 even though the companies weren’t direct rivals.

As the race for self-driving superiority heats up, this litigation may be a key battleground between the tech giants.

Related dockets:

Waymo v. Otto

IBM v. Papermaster

Zenimax Media v. Oculus VR

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