A federal judge ruled against Uber’s request Thursday night and referred the Google spinoff’s claims to the U.S. Attorney’s office for investigation into the possible theft of trade secrets. That leaves the door open for possible criminal charges, depending on the investigation’s outcome.
“The Court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up to the United States Attorney,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup cautioned in his order.
Waymo accuses Uber of orchestrating and paying a former Waymo executive to steal valuable self-driving technology on its behalf, an accusation Uber staunchly denies.
“This was a desperate bid by Uber to avoid the court’s jurisdiction,” a Waymo spokesperson told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “We welcome the court’s decision today, and we look forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct.”
In a separate order late Thursday, Alsup also made a ruling on whether or not Uber could continue working on its self-driving car program as the case moves forward. Alsup’s decision on the so-called preliminary injunction was released under seal, however, as it contains confidential information, meaning the scope of its impact is unknown at this time.
In a statement to HuffPost, Uber said it was disappointed in the ruling, but insisted it is innocent.
“It is unfortunate that Waymo will be permitted to avoid abiding by the arbitration promise it requires its employees to make,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology in any forum.”
At the center of the case is Uber Vice President Anthony Levandowski, who was formerly a Waymo engineer. Waymo has strong evidence that Levandowski downloaded some 14,000 of its confidential files before abruptly leaving the company in January 2016. The files included valuable schematics for a Waymo circuit board that controls an important piece of self-driving technology known as lidar.
Without lidar, both Uber’s and Waymo’s self-driving cars would be unable to “see” their surroundings and navigate appropriately.
Almost immediately after Levandowski left Waymo, he started a rival company, Otto, which Uber acquired for $680 million just six months later. Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven argued in court this month that Otto was little more than a shell company for Levandowski to sell trade secrets to Uber, including lidar tech.
Verhoeven said emails between Levandowski and Uber while the engineer was still at Waymo prove this point.
“There was this clandestine plan all along that Uber and Levandowski had a deal,” Verhoeven said.
Despite compelling evidence of Levandowski’s misdeeds, however, Judge Alsup initially thought Waymo lacked a “smoking gun” that proved Levandowski stole files at Uber’s direction.
That matters because Waymo’s case is against Uber, not Levandowski.
Waymo also struggled to prove Uber made use of its documents, despite having stumbled across a lidar circuit design Waymo says is suspiciously similar to its own.
Uber said it searched its servers extensively and found no record of the files. It’s possible Levandowski brought the information to work on his personal laptop, but that’s hard to prove.
“We are adamant that we did not use any of their secrets,” Gonzalez told the judge.
Complicating matters, Levandowski asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify ― a tactic Uber denounced, yet that also gave it a reason not to turn over additional, potentially incriminating documents.
In his ruling Thursday night, Alsup let his disdain for the tactic be known, accusing Levandowski of obstructing the efforts of both companies.
“Even though he is not a defendant here,” he wrote, “Levandowski’s assertion of his Fifth Amendment privilege has obstructed and continues to obstruct both discovery and defendants’ ability to construct a complete narrative as to the fate of Waymo’s purloined files.”