The discovery process in the $2.6 billion trial between Waymo and Uber has produced plenty of proverbial smoke—and now there may be some actual fire.
New evidence presented to the court this week suggests Uber was training its employees to steal trade secrets—then cover their tracks.
The fresh information, found in a letter sent to a former Uber employee, is potentially damning enough to earn Waymo more time to investigate before going to court, said Judge William Alsup, the U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of California who is presiding over the case.
“If even half of what this letter says is true, it would be a huge injustice to force Waymo to go to trial,” the magistrate announced Tuesday, in a hearing where the new evidence was officially presented to the court.
The eleventh-hour revelation led to the second consecutive delay of the trial, which was originally scheduled to kick off in October, but pushed back to a December 4 start date, due to similar issues around Uber’s withholding of documents.
Alsup took no care to hide his frustration with the rideshare company, which Waymo said also held back the letter during the discovery process.
“I can’t trust anything you say because it’s been proven wrong so many times,” he told Uber’s attorneys at the Tuesday hearing. “You’re just making the impression that this is a total cover-up.”
Written by the personal attorney of former Uber security analyst Richard Jacobs, the 37-page letter allegedly details a secret program at the company, called “marketplace analytics,” that “exists expressly for the purpose for acquiring trade secrets, code base and competitive intelligence.”
Jacobs himself confirmed the program’s inner-workings in an evidentiary hearing before the court Tuesday. He described an elaborate set of methods employed by the company to research rivals while avoiding a paper trail that could be used against Uber if discovered.
Employees were instructed to use short-term messaging apps like Wickr when relaying such information, and advised to distance themselves from the laptop or wireless internet device they had used to make the communication, Jacobs said. The program also ran on separate servers than the rest of the company, he told the court.
The lawsuit itself centers around the allegation that Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo last year with the help of former Waymo engineer, Anthony Levandowski. Lawyers for Waymo, which is Google’s autonomous vehicle division, accused Levandowski of stealing more than 14,000 files before leaving to open his own self-driving operation called Otto. Waymo representatives allege that Levandowski used the start-up as a front to pass the autonomous driving data on to Uber, which bought Levandowski’s fledgling company for nearly $700 million.
The timing of the bombshell development couldn’t be worse for Uber—it comes just as the company was starting to dust off its battered image, thanks to a new deal inked with Volvo last week, in which Uber announced it would purchase 24,000 cars from the automaker to start its own autonomous fleet.
Now, Uber may have to put those plans on ice. With the lawsuit, Waymo is not only seeking billions in damages, but hoping to shut down Uber’s self-driving program altogether, saying the rideshare company is using the stolen technology in its autonomous models.
For their part, the Uber’s lawyers alleged that Jacobs, who was fired in April, simply sought money and that nothing he revealed pointed specifically to theft of trade secrets from Waymo.
Both Silicon Valley giants will now have to wait to see if a jury agrees.
No new start date has been set for the trial, and the evidentiary hearings are continuing.