The Uber-Waymo Robocar Trial: Everything You Need to Know

As the motorcycle flopped into the California desert sand, a lanky, bespectacled engineer flapped his arms in distress. Ghostrider, the Yamaha built to drive itself, was disqualified from the Darpa Grand Challenge, about three feet from the starting line.

Fortunately for Anthony Levandowski and his team of UC Berkeley undergrads, Ghostrider was not the only dropout. Zero of the fifteen entrants finished the challenge, a 142-mile race for autonomous vehicles with a $1 million prize. But the event kicked off more than a decade of furious innovation, which would see Levandowski rise to the top of a booming self-driving industry. He would serve as a key member of Project Chauffeur, Google’s autonomous vehicle moonshot. Eight years later, he took his talents and expertise in lidar, a laser-based sensor, to his own robo-truck startup, Otto. And in August 2016, Uber acquired Otto for a reported $680 million, and put Levandowski in charge of its struggling self-driving effort.

Then, a fall that made Ghostrider look like a prima ballerina. In late February 2017, Google’s self-driving project, now known as Waymo, dropped a bombshell lawsuit against Uber, alleging Levandowski had made off with 14,000 confidential documents about self-driving car tech and used the trade secrets contained within to advance Uber’s project. Waymo alleges a vast conspiracy: secret dealings between Levandowski, other former Waymo employees, and then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, all part of a plot to leapfrog over its own seven-year advantage in self-driving tech.

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In the year since the lawsuit was filed, this thriller has only gotten twistier. Levandowski has taken the fifth and been fired from Uber for refusing to cooperate with the company’s internal investigations. The US Attorney’s Office has launched a parallel criminal probe into the engineer’s alleged trade secret theft. Lawyers have scrapped over evidence and discovery.

So the first reason you should pay attention to this upcoming trade secrets trial between Uber and Waymo, which starts Monday morning, is that it’s a damn good story. It has battling tech titans: Alphabet, which brought in over $90 billion in 2016, and Uber, valued at $48 billion despite a turbulent 2017. Battling tech execs: former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, former Uber board member and Benchmark partner Bill Gurley, Waymo Engineering VP Dimitri Dolgov, and former Waymo engineering head Chris Urmson are all on the potential witness list. Plus, secrets, alleged spying, disgruntled employees, and lots of disappearing data.

And best of all, a big prize at stake: the future of a tenuous but potentially trillion-dollar self-driving car industry. If Uber loses this lawsuit, it could lose its edge in autonomous vehicle tech, which Kalanick has said is crucial to the (reminder: still not profitable) company’s survival.

But even if you hate drama, secrets, and tech gossip, this trial is for you. You must stay tuned. Here’s why, and what you need to know.

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