Waymo-Uber trial poses difficult task for jury
SAN FRANCISCO -- A jury's ability to decipher highly technical information in the face of back-and-forth accusations will decide Uber's fate in the trade secrets lawsuit brought by self-driving competitor Waymo.
In the first day of trial Monday here, the companies painted each other as highly competitive in the development of self-driving systems, engaging in questionable acts to gain an edge in a technology vital to their existence.
But the core of the case lies in two questions: Can the information at issue can be considered trade secrets, and did Uber use that information in its final sensor designs?
"Treat the end of the case like a scorecard," U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is hearing the case, told the jury. "Line up elements of proof, line up things that have been proven and determine if elements of proof have been met."
Waymo's lawsuit alleges that former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 files from the company, including its custom lidar sensor designs, and brought the information to Uber when his self-driving trucking startup was acquired, which the ride-hailing company in turn used in its autonomous vehicle development.
The comparisons the jury must make can be difficult when dealing with technology as complex as self-driving vehicle sensors. It can be even harder when the companies are exchanging accusations of desperate business practices.
"This case is about two competitors, where one competitor wants to win at all costs, and losing is not an option," said Charles Verhoeven of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, who is representing Waymo, Google's self-driving car affiliate. "They are willing to do anything they needed to do to win."
Verhoeven showed the jury a series of emails and internal documents from Uber that detailed the company's slow self-driving technology development and sense of urgency in competition with Google. He also presented a "stray" email from the engineer who built the server from which Levandowski downloaded the files, calling that information "low-value."
Verhoeven said Uber would try to use the email as evidence the information at issue does not contain trade secrets, but the fact the information was not immediately released to the public disputes the engineer's description.
Bill Carmody, of Susman Godfrey representing Uber, fired back in his opening statement, calling Verhoeven's characterization of Uber's practices "a tale of conspiracy."
Carmody alleged Waymo itself engaged in "unusual" practices, paying millions of dollars to Levandowski, knowing he wasn't entirely trustworthy. He also showed an additional email from Google's server engineer, in which he wrote that he was "uncomfortable" that lawyers were calling Levandowski's activity on the server suspicious.
Ultimately, Carmody said, Waymo bears the burden of proving the downloaded information contained trade secrets and that they were used in Uber's self-driving technology.
Experts say this burden of proof will be an uphill battle for the Silicon Valley giant.
"This is going to be a really difficult trial," said Dorothy Glancy, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School who specializes in transportation and privacy law. "We're dealing with trade secrets that you can't see, you have to visualize them somehow. I hope the jury has patience."
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