Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle
The judge overseeing Waymo’s high-stakes lawsuit against Uber over self-driving car technology reluctantly agreed Tuesday to delay the trial until December, giving Waymo’s attorneys more time to examine newly obtained documents.
The trial, which could have big implications for the race to perfect autonomous cars, had been scheduled to begin Oct. 10. Waymo, however, sought a delay, saying Uber had only recently produced an “avalanche” of documents that required careful review.
Judge William Alsup granted Waymo’s request, although with a timeline that he indicated would not change again. Jury selection is now scheduled for Nov. 29, while opening arguments will be heard Dec. 4.
Alsup cautioned Waymo, the new name given to Google’s self-driving car project last year, that the extra time may not help the company’s case.
Waymo, now a separate unit of Alphabet, filed the suit in February, arguing that Uber and one of Google’s former star engineers concocted an elaborate scheme to give Uber a boost in the competition to develop autonomous vehicles.
The engineer, Anthony Levandowski, left Google in January 2016 and founded his own self-driving truck company, Otto, which Uber bought for $680 million later that year. Waymo accused Levandowski of downloading thousands of confidential documents before leaving and accused Uber of stealing its trade secrets. Uber insisted that any proprietary Google information Levandowski had in his possession after he left never made it to Uber.
On Tuesday, Alsup noted that the newly disclosed documents Waymo wants time to examine all relate to the period before Uber bought Otto. It is therefore unlikely, he said, that Waymo would find evidence that Uber used Waymo’s intellectual property.
“I can’t say never, but it’s hard to believe that you’re going to find anything in there that shows that Uber was using the trade secrets,” Alsup, with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, told Waymo attorneys during a hearing Tuesday. “I think if you had been finding smoking guns after having 96 people, or however many it is you got working on this case, you would have brought it to me today.”
Waymo welcomed the ruling.
“Since filing this case, Waymo has confirmed that Uber acquired Anthony Levandowski’s company while knowing he had taken and retained massive amounts of confidential Waymo information, and we have uncovered significant evidence that Uber is in fact using Waymo trade secrets in its technology,” a Waymo spokeswoman said in an email.
“The Court has made clear that Waymo’s case is not what they hoped, and that more time will not change the hard fact that their trade secrets never came to Uber,” an Uber spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “We’re ready to go to trial now, and will be ready after this very brief continuance.”
The recently disclosed documents include one report — made public late Monday — that the two sides had fought over for months.
Before Uber bought Otto, the ride-hailing giant’s lawyers commissioned a “due diligence” report from a forensics firm, examining whether Levandowski and other former Google engineers who left to form Otto had violated their employment agreements with Google.
In addition to noncompetition agreements, the forensics team from Stroz Friedberg looked at whether any of the engineers had taken proprietary Google information. Stroz investigators interviewed Levandowski in March 2016. (Levandowski, however, has refused to testify in the lawsuit.)
According to the report, Levandowski met repeatedly with Uber executives in the six months before he left Google. Those discussions, which included former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, began with Uber expressing interest in becoming a customer for Google’s self-driving technology. But by December 2015, Uber was discussing buying Levandowski’s planned startup, Stroz found.
Levandowski, while still employed at Google, also actively recruited more than 20 of his colleagues to join him in his new venture, according to the report.
As for the internal documents, Levandowski told Stroz that in March 2016, he found proprietary Google information — including source code, design files, engineering documents and software related to self-driving vehicles — on five disks of a data storage device in his home. He notified both his lawyer and Uber. In a meeting, Kalanick said he “wanted nothing to do with the disks and told Levandowski to ‘do what he needed to do,’” according to the report.
Levandowski told Stroz that he took the disks to Shred Works in Oakland to have them destroyed. But he kept no receipt, and Stroz investigators who spoke with Shred Works employees could not confirm he ever went there.
Although the report shows Levandowski and his colleagues taking steps to erase files and messages among themselves — with Levandowski at one point emptying the trash bin of his MacBook Pro while he was at the Stroz offices — it does not show him transferring any Google data to anyone else.
“While Levandowski retained, and in some cases, accessed Google confidential information after his departure from Google, Stroz Friedberg discovered no evidence indicating that he transferred any of that data to (Otto) or other third parties,” the report reads.
Both companies seized on the report Tuesday to bolster their cases.
Waymo said it showed that Uber knew Levandowski had confidential Google data before it agreed to buy Otto. Uber, meanwhile, stressed that the report did not find any of the confidential information making its way to Otto or Uber.
“In the end, the jury will see that Google’s trade secrets are not and never were at Uber,” a company spokeswoman said, in an emailed statement.
Courtroom closure opposed
The San Francisco Chronicle joined with nine other news organizations and a First Amendment group Monday to urge that most of the trial between Waymo and Uber over self-driving car technology remain open to the public and press.
Waymo last week asked Judge William Alsup to close portions of the trial, arguing that the courtroom be closed for any in-depth discussion of the company’s trade secrets and Uber’s alleged use of them, as well as Waymo’s internal financial details, business plans, partnerships with other companies, and employee salaries and bonuses.
In a motion to intervene filed Monday, an attorney representing the coalition of media organizations, which includes The Chronicle’s parent company, Hearst, argued that Waymo’s request is far too broad.
The Chronicle and Hearst were joined in the motion by the Associated Press, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed, MediaNews Group, Dow Jones, the First Amendment Coalition, Gizmodo Media Group, the New York Times Co., Reuters and Vox Media.
A Waymo spokeswoman said Monday that the company only wanted the courtroom closed in a limited number of circumstances.
“Waymo welcomes a public trial and we will work with all parties to minimize closed courtroom time,” the company said.