Waymo v. Uber brawl sees ‘suspicious’ acts and ‘pilfered files’

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Uber’s self-driving car program is safe … for now.

James Martin/CNET

One thing is clear in the Waymo vs. Uber lawsuit: It’s complicated.

Federal Judge William Alsup sort of, kind of sided with Uber when he ruled Monday not to shutter the company’s self-driving car program. But in almost the same breath, Alsup sort of, kind of sided with Waymo by agreeing that something “highly suspicious” happened with Uber’s star engineer Anthony Levandowski.

But let’s back up. How did we get here?

In February, Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, filed a lawsuit against Uber alleging trade secret theft. Levandowski is at the center of the suit, with Waymo accusing him of stealing 14,000 “highly confidential” files on self-driving car technology in December 2015.

Levandowski used to work at Google but quit in January 2016 to form his own self-driving truck startup, called Otto. Uber bought Otto last August for $680 million and named Levandowski head of its self-driving car program.

Before Levandowski quit Google, he helped pioneer the company’s autonomous vehicle program and develop its lidar technology, a key component in self-driving cars that lets vehicles “see” their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles.

It’s that lidar technology that’s at the crux of the Waymo v. Uber lawsuit.

Waymo claims Uber colluded with Levandowski to steal its lidar designs. Those designs, Waymo argues, have benefited Uber’s driverless car tech.

Uber argues that its lidar technology is “fundamentally different” from Waymo’s.

Self-driving cars are a hot topic in the auto and tech industries. Automakers from Toyota to Ford to Volvo all have projects under way. Besides Google and Uber, other Silicon Valley giants, including Apple, Intel and Tesla Motors, are betting on the tech. These vehicles aren’t making money yet, but that could soon change. Once thought of as far-off future tech, driverless vehicles could be cruising city streets within the next 10 years, transforming the multitrillion-dollar auto industry.

Google started working on self-driving cars in 2009 and has now test-driven its vehicles nearly 3 million miles. Uber launched its self-driving project in 2015 and has since rolled out autonomous vehicles on city streets in Pennsylvania, California and Arizona.

What does the judge say?

Judge Alsup said Uber can keep its project alive in the

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