Cheat Codes: Uber Accused in Court of Stealing Secrets

By: Bridget Clerkin February 6, 2018
The biggest trial in the world of cars and technology is underway in San Francisco, where Waymo is accusing Uber of pirating technology to further its self-driving aims.
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Was Uber’s brain trust the mastermind behind a $1.9 billion conspiracy—or simply the beneficiary of aggressive, yet savvy, business moves?

That all depends on whom you believe.

After months of setbacks, Silicon Valley’s biggest lawsuit kicked off—formally, Waymo v. Uber—in San Francisco this week, and lawyers from both sides came out swinging.

Waymo attorneys had the first chance to speak to jurors, painting Uber, and its then-CEO Travis Kalanick, as a ruthless force determined to win the self-driving race at any cost—even if it meant breaking the law.

For their part, Uber lawyers dismissed the notion of wrongdoing and instead spoke of a brutal business landscape filled with deep-pocketed competitors eager to woo top talent away from their corporate rivals.

The feud started last spring when Waymo, Google’s self-driving subsidiary, sued Uber for theft of trade secrets. The search engine behemoth accused the rideshare giant of colluding with star engineer Anthony Levandowski, who Waymo alleges stole more than 14,000 classified files from the company before leaving, opening a shadow start-up called Otto, then quickly selling that company to Uber in order to pass on the information.

At stake is not only nearly $2 billion in damages—and untold costs to reputation—but the opportunity to continue using coveted LiDAR technology in the development of self-driving vehicles, which—in a rare moment of accord—all parties agreed is the most important and lucrative opportunity in the world of technology.

Code Name $

Anthony Levandowski was targeted for hiring by Uber officials because of his access to proprietary Waymo technology, Waymo's lawyers say.

To be sure, Silicon Valley is a hypercompetitive environment, but Google held a competitive edge after identifying early on that self-driving cars were the way of the future, argued Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven.

Once it became apparent that the idea was not only possible but profitable, “every car company in the world” got into the game, he said—including Uber. The ridehail giant began hoovering up talent at Carnegie Mellon University’s famed Robotics Institute to work on the idea in the spring of 2015, but after the gambit failed to catch them up to Waymo, Uber developed a plan “in order for its business model to survive,” Verhoeven said.

“Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time at Uber, made the decision that winning is more important than the law,” he said. “For him, winning at all costs, no matter what, was his culture.

That included looking for “cheat codes” and ways to “leapfrog” the competition, according to texts and emails sent out by Kalanick and other top Uber executives. And the biggest competition identified by the company was Google.

“This war for self-driving is truly existential for Uber,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said in an email to Kalanick. “The war is the long-term defeat of Google.

To help them claim ultimate victory, Uber employees aggressively courted Levandowski, whose work was identified in Uber internal documents as holding the potential to accelerate the company’s value by up to $500 million annually.

"There's no conspiracy. There's no cheating, period. End of story."
—Uber attorney Bill Carmody

A bevy of communications between Kalanick and Levandowski ensued that fall, with Kalanick suggesting Levandowski use the Slack app or delete texts in order to keep their conversations under the radar. Internally, the plan to lure the star employee to Uber’s roster was dubbed “Code Name $.”

By December 2015, Levandowski had transferred a massive number of Waymo’s proprietary files to his personal laptop. By January 2016, he was talking about leaving Waymo and offering the information to Kalanick, Verhoeven said. In exchange, Uber promised Levandowski indemnity—or total financial coverage in the case of any subsequent lawsuits—should he make the move to the rideshare company.

On Jan. 26, Levandowski downloaded the most recent version of Waymo’s self-driving files. The following day he resigned from the company without warning.

Otto was opened shortly thereafter, billed as a start-up founded by Levandowski to work on self-driving big rigs. Uber purchased the company from Levandowski—for $680 million—within months of its inception.

The deal “raised hundreds of red flags,” Verhoeven said. “There were hundreds of documents that were labeled ‘Google proprietary.’”

Historical First or Historical Footnote?

The story may be thrilling, but according to Uber’s attorney, Bill Carmody, it’s also false.

“I’m going to tell you right up front, it didn’t happen,” he said to the jury. “There’s no conspiracy. There’s no cheating, period. End of story.”

Instead, he said, Waymo was suffering from a case of sour grapes, unable to cope with the idea that top talent had left the company for a competitor, and the Uber suit was nothing more than retaliation.

Levandowski’s exit came amidst a steady stream of high-profile departures at Waymo, with the employees leaving to open their own ventures or join other businesses—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the Google affiliate.

“We have invested in self-driving cars, but over the last 6 months, we have stopped playing to win and are instead now playing to minimize downside,” Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving division at the time, said in a February 2015 email to company top brass Larry Page and Sergey Brin. “We have a choice between being the headline or the footnote in history’s book on the next revolution in transportation. Let’s make the right choice.”

Levandowski had reportedly been unhappy with the direction of Waymo’s self-driving plans for some time, and the feeling was mutual, with some Waymo employees referring to him as untrustworthy in several internal memos. Still, Page had previously instructed the company to “make Anthony rich” if the project were to succeed—with a $120 million bonus meant to incentivize the star engineer.

But by the time Uber’s ambitions at Carnegie became public knowledge, Waymo officials began actively worrying about the creeping appeal of competition. A Google strategy presentation from March 2015 included the bullet: “What would it take to consume all of Uber’s annual profits in 2025.” Other emails sent to Google’s top executives from members of the self-driving team warned of “plentiful exit opportunities” for the company’s top talent.

The day after Levandowski left Waymo, an email circulated by Google’s Chief Culture Officer Stacy Savides Sullivan mentioned the departure upset Page, “even though the leaders didn’t trust him,” and sparked worry that the former employee would “start something competitive.”

But the implication that his jump to Uber was anything other than opportunistic is a straw man argument, Carmody said.

“Engineers are free to go from one job to another,” he said. “They don’t get a lobotomy in between. They bring all their talent, all their education, all the publicly-known stuff they work with—they can work on the very same technology with a different company, that’s okay.”

What Now?

Still, that assessment will ultimately rest with the case’s 10 jurors.

All told, the group will be tasked with determining whether the information in question was inappropriately acquired by Uber, whether the company used that information in its self-driving efforts, whether Uber profited off of the information, and indeed whether the information qualifies as “trade secrets” at all.

The trial is anticipated to last about two weeks, with some of Silicon Valley’s most recognizable names listed as potential witnesses, including Kalanick, Levandowski, and Google co-founders Page and Brin.

Its highly anticipated conclusion will result not just in splashy headlines but a seismic shift, forging an entirely new landscape in Silicon Valley, with a new leader of the self-driving pack emerging after the dust settles.

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