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Alphabet sues Uber over Waymo's self-driving car tech

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Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous car business, has sued Uber for stealing crucial technical information about its self-driving technology. Waymo's lawsuit targets Otto, a promising self-driving truck startup that Uber acquired in mid-2016. As we noted in August, Otto was founded and staffed by former Google employees, including Anthony Levandowski.


"We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo's various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo's LiDAR and circuit board," Waymo writes.


Waymo argues its self-driving car technology hinges on a custom-built LiDAR -- "Light Detection and Ranging" -- system, which allows the vehicles to "see" the world in 3D. Building this tech apparently took millions of dollars and thousands of hours.


As Waymo tells it, the company recently received an "unexpected" email from one of its LiDAR suppliers.


"Waymo was recently -- and apparently inadvertently -- copied on an email from one of its LiDAR component vendors," the company's lawsuitreads. "The email attached machine drawings of what purports to be an Uber LiDAR circuit board. This circuit board bears a striking resemblance to Waymo's own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets."


Waymo claims that just before he left the company, Levandowski snuck into the design server and downloaded 9.7 GB of "highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation." That's 14,000 files in total.


Levandowski didn't act alone, according to Waymo.


"A number of Waymo employees subsequently also left to join Anthony Levandowski's new business, downloading additional Waymo trade secrets in the days and hours prior to their departure," the lawsuit alleges.


Levandowski is the founder of 501 Systems, a self-driving startup that Google bought in the early days of its own self-driving car project. After leaving Google, he co-founded Otto with Lior Ron, who was the head of Google Maps for three years. The pair launched Otto in May 2016 and Uber bought it in August of that same year for $680 million. Waymo claims theft of its proprietary LiDAR files earned Otto employees more than $500 million.


We've reached out to Uber for its statement on the lawsuit.


Google's self-driving cars are getting better at autonomy


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Perhaps more than any company (with the possible exception of Tesla), Google's autonomous driving record has been under close scrutiny. Today the company bears news that while dramatically increasing the number of miles tested, the number of times a human had to grab the wheel because something went wrong -- "disengagement" -- actually decreased. AsWaymo's blog post (and California-DMV-mandated report (PDF)) tells it, these disengagements fell from 0.8 per thousand miles to 0.2 from 2015 to 2016.


In 2015 the cars ran 424,331 miles with 341 disengagements, and last year mileage increased to 635,868 while disengagement sharply fell to 124 times. Comparatively, General Motors' Bosch logged 9,895.21 miles and 568 disengagements. Tesla only tested (PDF) in California last October through November and its 550 miles on public streets resulted in 182 disengagements.


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Waymo says that all of its testing time has taken place on "complex" urban and suburban roads versus testing facilities and that its these conditions that've caused the increase in performance.


"This has given us valuable experience sharing the road safely with pedestrians and cyclists," head of Waymo's self-driving tech Dmitri Dolgov writes on Medium. "For each [disengagement] event we can create hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of related scenarios in simulation, varying the parameters such as the position and speed of other road users in the area."


As Bloomberg notes, however, these tests aren't standardized and because automakers are also logging miles outside of the Golden State, the data isn't anywhere near comprehensive.


For Waymo's full report and those from BMW, GM, Ford, Honda and others, hit the links below -- just be prepared to not find a lot of uniformity in the papers' organization.


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