Waymo, Uber battle over lidar

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Google’s self-driving car spin-off, Waymo, has filed a lawsuit alleging that 14,000 files of private company information was stolen off of Waymo servers and were the basis of some Uber lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) functionality.

Waymo, now owned by Google’s publicly-held parent company Alphabet, claims that a former employee of the self-driving car project, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded these files during his employment at Google and used some of the information contained in them during the launch of autonomous trucking startup Otto. Otto was purchased by Uber in a $680 million sale last August.

The allegations specifically relate to the use of lidar sensors in the autonomous vehicles in each company. Lidar works by sending lasers across a target and detecting the amount of time it takes for the laser to bounce off of nearby objects and return to the sensor. The hardware is currently expensive and rarely used outside of autonomous vehicle research. The hardware itself is only useful with complex software, and it is software like this that Waymo alleges Levandowski stole.

Part of the lawsuit is an injunction that Uber be prohibited from using any of the allegedly stolen technology, which would be an astronomical blow to the Uber AV project. The technology named in the lawsuit is not only seen as especially difficult to use, but critical for most AV functions. Lidar is seen by virtually every player in the game of autonomous vehicles as vital to the creation of a truly self-driving car.

The lone exception is Telsa, which has chosen to rely on cameras, radar and other more commonly available sensors. Uber has stated that the allegations are “baseless” and merely an attempt to disrupt Uber’s recent momentum in the race to put the first self-driving cars in the hands of customers. Uber recently began accepting passengers in its autonomous vehicles in Arizona, after beginning road tests in the state last month and initial tests in Pittsburgh last year.

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