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Waymo sues Uber for alleged theft of self-driving car technology

To better compete with Uber, Lyft has partnered with nuTonomy, a startup founded by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab that develops software for autonomous cars and robots.

Since August 2016, nuTonomy has tested its self-driving technology in Singapore, with plans to make the service publicly available in 2018.

In the partnership between these two enterprises, research is largely focused on improving user experience of calling for a self-driving car. This includes, among other things, system interaction with the passenger regarding scheduling and travel routes, which is a means of creating a more pleasant user experience. Collaborative research and development will take place in Boston, Massachusetts, where nuTonomy has been testing its self-driving electric cars since earlier this year.

Besides nuTonomy, Lyft is also open to partnerships with automakers, other companies and software developers.

Uber's expansive engineering team, funding and resources give the company a major competitive advantage by allowing it to develop its own self-driving technology. Lacking these resources, Lyft must instead focus on partnerships. Uber became involved in autonomous driving technology by working with engineers in numerous cities to develop self-driving cars. The performance of these cars is tested with technology such as cameras and lasers placed inside the vehicle for an accurate, precise assessment.

According to The New York Times, some of the common components of self-driving cars are lidar units, which use “constantly spinning laser beams to generate a 360-degree image of the car’s surroundings,” radar sensors, which “measure the distance from the car to obstacles,” and cameras, which “find the distance to various objects, and detect traffic lights, signs, and moving objects.”

However, Uber’s recent advances in this area have led the company to a lawsuit with Waymo, a self-driving car unit created by Alphabet, over stolen technology. Waymo is accusing former employee Andrew Levandowski of stealing intellectual property by downloading thousands of files from Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet, before resigning.

After resigning, Levandowski created Otto, his own autonomous car company. Some of his former coworkers then joined Otto, bringing with them files stolen from Google. Uber, seeking to develop its self-driving technology, acquired Otto. According to The New York Times, Waymo first became aware of this when it was “copied in an email from one of its suppliers with drawings of Uber’s circuit board design for its lidar technology, short for light detection and ranging,” and Waymo noticed similarities between its design and Uber’s.

The lawsuit initiated by Waymo accuses Uber of “stealing trade secrets, infringing on patents and competing unfairly in an effort to catch up on autonomous vehicle technology.”

Uber has denied Waymo’s claims of possessing any of its files on Uber’s servers. Uber’s lawyer stated, “We’ve interviewed more than 85 Uber employees, and more than 40 attorneys spent more than 6,000 hours reviewing documents, including over the weekends. After reviewing more than 300,000 documents we’ve only found one Google email in the files.”

Waymo’s lawyers showed documents involving communication between Uber and Levandowski. The documents show Uber’s interest in buying Otto while Levandowski was still working at Google. There were also discussions of potential compensation if Levandowski would work for Uber. Uber’s lawyers refute these claims due to the lack of evidence of Uber utilizing Waymo’s trade secrets.

Waymo needs more evidence to prove that Levandowski would have a reason for stealing its intellectual property. Levandowski has stayed silent to avoid the risk of implicating himself.

Uber’s aggressive company practices have caused an influx of problems, including a sexual harassment investigation, inquiry into the company’s “toxic” work culture and numerous lawsuits. Members of Uber’s managerial staff have left the company, and Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has recently taken leave amid vast changes at Uber.

Despite its $70 billion valuation, all of these problems affect Uber adversely and may eventually lead to a drop in stock price. Hopefully, Uber’s proposed changes will help repair its image and prevent future occurrences of this kind.

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