You have probably seen Google’s self-driving cars at some point in the past couple of years, probably in movies or on TV, as these little pod-like cars have been a flagship example of the future.
Since Google began their self-car project in 2009, they have quickly become a leader in this technology. As of June 2016, Google had test driven their fleet of vehicles, in autonomous mode, a total of 1,725,911 mi (2,777,585 km). Google has said that they see their technology as a potential disrupter in personal vehicles, ridesharing, logistics, or solving last mile problems from public transport. This technology has naturally electrified the general public in all the possibilities this technology can have on even smaller aspects of their life, like getting home safely after a night on the town or alleviating the stress of a rush hour commute. Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., spun the self-driving car project into a subsidiary company named Waymo in December 2016.
According to Bloomberg, the driverless car market will potentially be worth $42 Billion by 2025. The potential of these enormous profits has enticed many other automakers and tech companies to pursue their own driverless car technologies.
One such company is Uber. Uber bought Otto, a self-driving car company that was co-founded by former Google self-driving car lead Anthony Levandowski. Anthony Levandowski built the Google self-driving car while working as a co-founder and technical lead on the project before co-founding Otto, which was sold to Uber for $680 million. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has openly spoke in the past of his desire to eventually move to using self-driving cars for Uber vehicles.
For Uber, driverless cars eliminate its largest cost: the driver. By the end of 2014, the rideshare startup employed about 160,000 drivers across the globe.
Case at Issue
On March 10th, Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous vehicle development firm Waymo amended their previously filed complaint, alleging patent infringement and trade secret violation suit against Uber. The amended complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, and alleges trade secret misappropriation and patent infringement, among other claims.
The complaint filed by Waymo against Uber asserts claims from four patents held by Waymo: U.S. Patent Number 8836922, 9285464, 9368936, and 9086273. These patents cover a variety of different aspects of the Google self-driving car technology’s unique laser systems that provide information for the operation of fully self-driving vehicles. This laser system is known as LiDAR, and is a laser based scanning and mapping technology that uses the reflection of laser beams off objects to create a real-time 3D image of the world. When mounted on a vehicle, the LiDAR sensors enable a vehicle to ‘see’ its surroundings.
Additionally, the complaint filed by Waymo against Uber alleges that Anthony Levandowski, a former manager in Google’s self-driving car project – now leading the effort for Uber – misappropriated Waymo’s trade secrets when he allegedly downloaded more than 14,000 highly confidential files shortly before his resignation, and these files allegedly include Waymo’s LiDAR designs.
Waymo is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions, damages for patent infringement including damages for infringement of the ‘922, ‘464, ‘936 and ‘273 patents and punitive damages among other forms of relief.
Intellectual Property Rights at Issue
A trade secret is a formula, practice, process, design, instrument, pattern, commercial method, or compilation of information not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by others by which a business can obtain an economic advantage over competitors or customers. The suit includes counts for violations of the Defend Trade Secrets Act and state claims for violations of the California Uniform Trade Secret Act.
Misappropriation under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, in general, includes: without permission (A) obtaining a trade secret that was knowingly obtained through improper means or (B) disclosing or using a trade secret without knowing either (1) that it is a trade secret or (2) that it was obtained through improper means. The “improper means” include “theft, bribery, misrepresentation, breach or inducement of a breach of a duty to maintain secrecy, or espionage through electronic or other means.” However, misappropriation does not include “reverse engineering, independent derivation, or any other lawful means of acquisition.”
Additionally, the suit contains patent infringement allegations. Patent infringement is the act of making, using, selling, or offering to sell a patented invention, or importing into the United States a product covered by a claim of a patent without the permission of the patent owner.
What does this mean?
If Google spinoff Waymo is able to prove its case, the cost to Uber will be significant. In addition to monetary damages, Waymo is seeking an injunction against Uber to bar it from using the allegedly stolen technology.
Ubers problems could be compounded if Waymo is able to score an early injunction against Uber for the duration of the lawsuit, which could potentially go on for years. According to Uber’s own CEO, Travis Kalanick, such a delay could be fatal. In August, Kalanick laid out the stakes of his competition with Google to Bloomberg: “The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car], because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.”
How You Can Protect Your Products
Product inventors, owners and manufacturers should protect themselves by working with their patent attorneys to ensure their products and intellectual property are fully protected from potential infringers. Different products require different levels of protection, and the form of protection (copyright, trademark, patents) must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the inventor/owner. Bold IP patent attorneys are ready to assist in any intellectual property matters.
Author: Derek Clements, Patent Attorney