Google has been working on self-driving car technology for almost a decade. Its autonomous driving car project was recently renamed Waymo. One company that has been catching up fast with Waymo is Uber. On Thursday, the Alphabet company filed a lawsuit against Uber, accusing it of stealing critical autonomous driving technology from Google. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in California’s Northern District.

Google Waymo Uber Lawsuit
Image Credit: Waymo / YouTube video (screenshot)

The lawsuit targets Uber’s self-driving project chief

The lawsuit would have significant implications on the future of self-driving car technology. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has admitted that autonomous driving posed an existential threat to the ride-hailing service provider. In an attempt to catch up with rivals, Uber acquired Otto for a whopping $680 million in August last year. Otto was barely a few months old and had already developed self-driving technology from scratch.

That was a remarkable feat considering Google had taken years to develop similar technology. Uber was so happy with Otto’s progress that it made Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski the in-charge of all its autonomous driving efforts. Waymo alleges in its lawsuit that Anthony Levandowski had stolen technology from Google before resigning from the search engine giant.

Did Uber know about the alleged data theft?

Levandowski was a manager at Waymo’s self-driving vehicle project. The Alphabet company says Levandowski met with Uber executives on January 14, 2016, just a couple of weeks before resigning from Google and before launching his own company Otto. In a blog post, Waymo said it had found evidence that Levandowski secretly downloaded 14,000 “highly confidential and proprietary” files from its servers before resigning.

The Alphabet company goes on to claim that Levandowski took “extraordinary efforts” to steal data from its servers and then “conceal his activities.” Back in December 2015, Levandowski installed specialized software on his Google-issued laptop to access the servers that stored self-driving car data. After downloading more than 14,000 files (9.7GB of data), he attached an external hard drive to the laptop for eight hours.

Levandowski then installed a new operating system on the company-issued laptop to reformat it. He also tried to remove any “forensic fingerprints” from the laptop. After wiping the machine, he never used it again. So, how did Waymo uncover the whole thing?

How Waymo uncovered it

A supplier that makes LiDAR components inadvertently sent Waymo an attachment of machine drawings of what was supposed to be Uber’s LiDAR circuit board. It was almost identical to Waymo’s own proprietary design. The company then started the forensic analysis of the hard drives of its former employees. It discovered that Anthony Levandowski had downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files, which included design files for Google’s proprietary LiDAR.

Waymo has patented many aspects of its LiDAR circuit board. In its lawsuit, the company alleges that Uber-owned Otto used its LiDAR technology in its self-driving truck. Waymo claimed that Uber is using the same technology in its self-driving cars.