By Michael Liedtke
SAN FRANCISCO — A Google-bred pioneer in self-driving cars and Uber’s beleaguered ride-hailing service are colliding in a courtroom showdown revolving around allegations of deceit, betrayal, espionage and a high-tech heist that tore apart one-time allies.
The trial opening today in San Francisco federal court comes nearly a year after Google spin-off Waymo sued Uber, accusing it of ripping off key pieces of its self-driving car technology in 2016. Uber paid $680 million for a startup run by Anthony Levandowski, one of the top engineers in a robotic vehicle project that Google began in 2009 and later spun out into Waymo.
Google was also an early investor in Uber, a relationship that later soured. Its parent company Alphabet also owns Waymo.
Waymo contends Levandowski heisted thousands of documents containing Google trade secrets before defecting to Uber. Waymo says Levandowski conspired with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to use the purloined technology in Uber’s own fleet of self-driving cars.
Uber has vehemently denied the allegations in the civil case, which has also triggered a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s not clear whether that probe is focused on Uber or Levandowski, who has consistently exercised his right against self-incrimination and is expected to do so again if called to testify during the trial.
Levandowski’s refusal to relinquish his Fifth Amendment rights eventually led Uber to fire him last May, even though he had developed a close relationship with Kalanick.
The stakes in the trial are huge. Waymo is demanding damages that its expert estimated at nearly $2 billion. It also wants a court order that would prevent Uber from using any of the technology that it says was stolen, a move that could hobble the ride-hailing service’s push to design self-driving cars.
“This is the biggest case in the history of Uber,” William Carmody, a Uber lawyer, said during a pretrial hearing last week.
The list of expected witnesses includes Kalanick and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Gurley, an early Uber backer who later helped engineer Kalanick’s departure as Uber’s CEO. (Kalanick resigned under pressure last June.)
Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin also may testify about the importance of Waymo’s self-driving project and Levandowski’s role in it.