UC Berkeley alumnus involved in lawsuit over self-driving car technology

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Anthony Levandowski, a UC Berkeley alumnus and co-founder of self-driving technology company Otto, is involved in a lawsuit filed Thursday against Otto and Otto’s parent company Uber.

The lawsuit — which was filed in the U.S. District Court by Waymo, a self-driving technology company created by Google’s parent company Alphabet — alleged that Otto and Uber stole and utilized Waymo’s intellectual property, infringing upon fair competition. Waymo’s formal complaint against Uber further alleged that the “calculated theft” garnered Otto employees more than half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to restore a stalled program.

In the complaint, Waymo alleged that Levandowski, a former Waymo employee, installed “specialized software” onto his company laptop at Waymo in December 2015 and took 14,000 files of highly confidential information, passing them on to Otto and Uber. Levandowski attended UC Berkeley from 1998 to 2003, obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering and operations research.

Waymo announced in May 2015 that it had created the first “fully self-driving car” after seven years of research and development. Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016 to establish Otto in May 2016. Otto was acquired by Uber in August of the same year, where Levandowski retained his position as manager of the self-driving car project.

“Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly,” said the Waymo team in an emailed statement. “(W)e have no choice but to defend our investment and development of this unique technology.”

Uber had previously engaged in a partnership in February 2015 with Carnegie Mellon University to produce self-driving cars. This partnership, however, was reportedly “stalled” as of March 2016, according to the complaint.

In September 2016, Uber allegedly announced that it would no longer be using third-party-developed LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, technology — a mapping technology that relies on the reflections of laser beams to sense surrounding objects, traffic and pedestrians — but would instead be utilizing an “(i)n-house custom built LiDAR system.” In the formal complaint against Uber, Waymo alleged that Uber’s LiDAR circuit boards closely resembled Waymo’s, stating that Uber had “infringe(d) multiple LiDAR technology patents awarded to Waymo.”

Waymo said in the complaint that Uber and Otto had created something in nine months that took Waymo seven years to accomplish.

Uber spokesperson Chelsea Kohler said in an email that Waymo’s allegations were “baseless,” adding that Uber looked forward to “vigorously” defending itself in court.

“We are incredibly proud of the progress that our team has made,” Kohler said in the email. “(W)e will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

Contact Sunny Tsai at [email protected].