The trial that could determine the fate of Uber’s autonomous driving program is finally underway in a crowded courtroom in San Francisco.
For the past year, lawyers for Waymo (the self-driving car unit spun out from Alphabet in December 2016) and ride-hailing juggernaut Uber have been sparring in court over evidence and witnesses and proceedings.
At the center of the lawsuit is an acquisition that Uber made in 2016 of a self-driving company called Otto, picking up that company’s brilliant but troubled chief executive, Anthony Levandowski.
Formerly known as Ottomotive, Otto was created by Levandowski, a former Alphabet employee, who was one of the founding fathers of autonomous vehicle technologies. For years, Levandowski worked (in somewhat odd business arrangements) with Google — and later Alphabet — as part of the pre-spinout Waymo project team.
For Waymo lawyers, the case seems to hinge on the ambitions of Uber’s ousted chief executive, Travis Kalanick, and his wooing of this wunderkind autonomous vehicle technology developer.
In opening arguments, Waymo’s chief lawyer, Charles Verhoeven, painted a picture of Uber as a company whose chief executive realized that the race to develop autonomous vehicles would define the future prospects of the company — and that future was looking increasingly grim.
“Internal documents indicate that Mr. Kalanick wanted to find ‘cheat codes,’ ” Verhoeven told the jury in his opening statement. “In their own words… in these documents… Mr. Kalanick said he wanted to use Levandowski to leapfrog Google.”
Ultimately Waymo is framing the case around Kalanick as the instigator, and that he initiated a plot with Levandowski to steal Waymo trade secrets and shield Levandowski from any consequences, including the offer to indemnify Levandowski and other executives from any claims of intellectual property theft.
Uber’s lawyers are arguing that the actions of the company were just natural Silicon Valley competition.
When Uber reached out to Levandowski, it was no different from the Warriors pursuing Kevin Durant to bring home a championship, Uber’s outside counsel Bill Carmody told the jury.
It’s an argument that will resonate in Silicon Valley where companies typically engage in cutthroat competition for top talent.
If focusing on recruitment is one way to blunt the terrible optics of Uber’s internal messaging, then the focus on technology is another.
There are two pillars to Carmody’s defense of Uber’s actions. One: that everyone does it — including Alphabet. The other: that the technology Levandowski allegedly stole never made its way into Uber’s vehicles.
None of the eight trade secrets ever made it into Uber, Carmody argued.
“Uber regrets ever bringing Anthony Levandowski on board,” Carmody told the jury. “All Uber has to show for hiring Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit.”
The strategies were already on display in jury selection according to a consultant on jury composition who observed the proceedings from a spillover gallery. Uber was challenging jurors who were emotional about issues, while Waymo was challenging potential jury members who were too technically savvy.
The one man who is at the center of this legal battle and its potential billions of dollars in damages will likely be silent, as he pleaded the Fifth Amendment almost a year ago. Indeed, perhaps never in a courtroom has so much been said about a man who will, himself, say so little.
Not great for us observers, but maybe just as both the plaintiff and defendant want things. That Anthony Levandowski was unscrupulous and unethical is something on which both sides will agree — which is perhaps why neither side may want to hear what he has to say.
We’ll be there to track and report what happens in court, so stay tuned for more.