Company / division: Waymo
Reuters reports that Waymo had sought a billion dollars and a public apology from Uber in settlement talks over the lawsuit the companies are embroiled in. Uber apparently quickly dismissed those requests as unreasonable, which isn’t all that surprising, given that it’s still far from clear that Waymo has the evidence it needs against Uber as a company rather than merely against Anthony Levandowski around the stealing of LIDAR technology. It’s also a sign that Waymo is perfectly happy for the court case to continue and for it to continue to distract Uber at a time when the latter already has a lot on its plate including several legal actions and more.
Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary and chipmaker Intel have launched separate campaigns to promote autonomous driving technology. While Intel seems to be going it alone and focusing on TV ads with celebrities like LeBron James, Waymo has partnered with several safety and advocacy groups for its campaign, which seems more aimed at starting a conversation using the hashtag #letstalkselfdriving than pushing out its message via ads, at least for now. Waymo is an obvious company to be pushing the technology given that autonomy is its raison d’être and it has its own cars on the street in various markets, while Intel is clearly aiming for the same kind of indirect approach it took to its famous “Intel Inside” campaigns back in the day. These are, after all, mostly awareness campaigns at this point – there’s nothing any consumer could buy after seeing the efforts from either campaign, and most consumers aren’t even aware of regulatory efforts in this area yet either. But both campaigns are clearly aware of broad skepticism shown in recent surveys about autonomous driving and want to start the education process early. Waymo’s campaign is particularly focused on the accessibility and safety benefits and its partners – which include an organization serving the blind and another serving seniors. That gels well with the NHTSA stats I shared earlier today, which demonstrated again the potential safety benefits of a computer not prone to alcohol use, speeding, or distraction driving a car.
The Information reports that Waymo is gearing up to offer the autonomous ride sharing service it previously announced sometime this fall (i.e. in the next month or two) but that its technology still has real problems dealing with some basic situations like left turns without human assistance. That’s a pretty fundamental problem and indicative of the state of autonomous driving even at companies as far along as Waymo is (generally further than others), and even in locales where it’s been testing for quite some time and therefore should have really good data. It’s not clear quite how Waymo is going to resolve that issue (neither making three right turns nor remote human control seem like workable long-term solutions). But bear this in mind next time you hear a car or tech company talk about imminent autonomous driving.
via The Information
Waymo has finally succeeded in getting the due diligence report on Otto which Uber commissioned as it planned to buy the company unsealed, allowing many details about what Uber knew and when to emerge. However, like earlier disclosures in the lawsuit, it mostly confirms that Anthony Levandowski, the executive at the center of the case who is nonetheless not named in the suit took documents and other information with him from Waymo, while not providing evidence that Uber benefited from that. Uber, meanwhile, continues to say that when it found out about the document haul Levandowski had, it ordered him to destroy it all and not bring it to Uber – proving that assertion false is Waymo’s biggest challenge. Of course, Levandowski as an individual might still have used that information in developing at least one version of LIDAR technology he worked on at Otto/Uber, but that would only cover some of the claims Waymo has made in the case.
Waymo Uses Intel Chips for Autonomous Driving Technology (Sep 18, 2017)
With data centers a big exception, Intel has struggled to take a major share of most of the new chip technology markets that have emerged over the last twenty years, failing in mobile, tablets, wearables, and others. The automotive space has been another where it’s clearly been very serious – its Mobileye acquisition being the biggest sign of that seriousness – and yet has lost out to other big chip vendors including Qualcomm and Nvidia for some big contracts. In that context, I bet it’s been begging Google/Waymo for years to let it talk abbot the two companies’ partnership in powering autonomous driving technology, because it’s something of a coup. The two companies are now finally talking about that partnership in blog posts and coverage by TechCrunch linked below. Waymo has largely developed its own computing platform for self-driving cars internally but has apparently leaned on Intel chips almost from the beginning. There’s definitely some of the article here that feels overblown – talk of scale, for example, seems odd in the context of a fleet that currently numbers in the hundreds, while the idea that autonomy and self-driving “represents a significant portion of the chipmaker’s business” also feels off even with the inclusion of Mobileye. The words “car” and “autonomous driving” barely appear in Intel’s latest 10-Q, for example, and mostly in the context of that acquisition. But this is a big win for Intel, and one that’s remained quiet for a remarkably long time. It won’t by itself dramatically change Intel’s fortunes in this space, but it’s great validation that Intel is a worthy player given that Waymo is considered one of the leading companies in autonomous driving.
This isn’t huge news, and I think people who follow the transportation industry and autonomous driving technology closely would probably know this already, but it’s worth noting these comments from Alphabet subsidiary Waymo’s CEO on the timing of various applications of self-driving technology. He said at an event today that he sees trucking and ride sharing being the first applications for autonomy, and that either one might be the first to be commercialized at this point. That’s very much in keeping with the conclusions I’ve reached and what I’ve heard from various other industry players – the fact that trucking largely involves long distances and highways dramatically simplifies the driving task there and enables platooning of vehicles, all of which means it has a much clearer near-term return on the investment in autonomous technology than most other applications. Ride sharing, meanwhile, typically involves cars which have very high utilization rates versus private vehicles, and is often limited to a well defined geographic area, making the training and gathering of mapping data a more manageable task too. Of course, we still don’t know quite what the business model for either of these applications will be – whether a licensing of the technology, a direct participation or revenue sharing agreement for the ride sharing market, or something else.
Waymo Drops Three of Four Patent Claims Against Uber (Jul 7, 2017)
Waymo has dropped three of the four patent claims in its lawsuit against Uber, partially complying with a suggestion from the judge in the case. The patents dropped relate to a design which Waymo became aware of, but which Uber doesn’t actually use and has promised not to use going forward, making them much less important. The judge has indicated throughout the process that he largely believes Waymo’s claims about Anthony Levandowski downloading files and bringing them to Uber, but has also suggested that the patent part of the lawsuit is going to be tough to prove and should be set aside by Waymo. Uber is, of course, trumpeting the news as a sign that the whole thing is misguided, while at the same time seeking depositions of Alphabet executives with a few to showing that the suit is motivated by a desire to slow Uber’s efforts down rather than a true desire for legal redress. The tone of Uber’s statement to various outlets today certainly suggests that it isn’t backing down on its aggressive response following the departure of Travis Kalanick as CEO, answering one of the questions I posed at the time he stepped down. Ultimately, though, narrowing the case to a few key points and potentially even dropping the remaining patent claim is likely to give Waymo a better chance at winning in court, even if the scope of that win is smaller than it originally hoped. Update: later in the day, the judge granted Uber’s request to depose Larry Page for up to four hours, per Recode.
The judge in the Uber-Waymo case has told Uber in no uncertain terms that it has to do all it can to get its employee, Anthony Levandowski, to comply with the court’s orders in terms of handing over documents and disclosing other information relevant to the case. As such, given his continued unwillingness to cooperate, Uber has officially threatened to fire him – something it certainly doesn’t want to do – and his lawyers are now fighting back. Levandowski has throughout this process invoked his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination, but that in turn has made it harder for Uber to defend itself, because much of the most relevant information has been held back by Levandowski. At this point, it feels like both Uber and Levandowski are coming off badly around this whole situation, given that it seems very clear that Uber was working with Levandowski before he left Waymo, and Levandowski clearly feels he has something to hide. I very much doubt Levandowski will actually be fired, but it’s remarkable that he continues to resist these clear orders from the judge even as his job is at stake. Meanwhile, both parties – Levandowski and his employer – seem remarkably willing to throw each other under the bus, which says something both about the stakes here and the prevailing culture at the company.
Waymo-Uber Injunction Made Public (May 15, 2017)
★ Waymo and Lyft Partner Over Self-Driving Cars (May 15, 2017)
The New York Times reported last night that Alphabet autonomous driving unit Waymo and ride sharing company Lyft are partnering around self-driving cars. There aren’t many details, but it’s worth noting that Lyft already has GM as an investor and partner, and GM has its own autonomous driving technology through its Cruise Automation subsidiary. But the brief Lyft statement on the partnership described Waymo’s technology as the best out there, which certainly matches my own perception but likely wasn’t well received at Cruise. But the partnership is a concession by Lyft that it needs its partnerships in autonomy to move much faster to compete in autonomous driving with Uber, which of course is developing its own technology, and a concession by Waymo that it likely won’t be building a ride sharing network at scale on its own. Even though the situation is complicated somewhat by Alphabet’s investment in Uber through GV, Waymo and Lyft certainly have a common enemy in Uber at the moment, and joining forces makes a ton of sense. Waymo has the autonomous technology but not ride sharing expertise or scale, while Lyft has the ride sharing scale but no expertise in autonomy. As I’ve said before, though a number of tech companies are trying to play in one of the three major shifts in transportation – autonomy, electrification, and mobility as a service – few are serious players in more than one of those domains. Partnerships are therefore going to be key for most of them, although acquisitions (including a possible eventual Waymo-Lyft acquisition) would be another eventual outcome.
Uber’s Bid to Move Waymo Case to Arbitration Fails (May 11, 2017)
We’ve already seen some juicy stuff come out of the Uber-Waymo case, and we’ve only been in the preliminary stages of the lawsuit. Uber had therefore understandably moved to have the case decided in arbitration rather than open court, away from public eyes, but it has today failed in that attempt as a judge decided the case will be heard in court as Waymo wanted. That, in turn, means we’ll likely have lots more details about Uber and Anthony Levandowski’s actions aired in court, something Uber likely desperately wanted to avoid given all the bad press it’s already had since the beginning of the year over its support for the Trump administration, its toxic culture, its CEO’s treatment of drivers, and so on and so forth. And of course, there’s still the possibility the case ultimately goes against Uber, though based on the preliminary hearings it sounded like Waymo hadn’t yet found its smoking gun in proving that Uber and Levandowski stole and used confidential information. However, the judge has referred the case to the US Attorney for consideration as a criminal case as well, so things just keep getting worse for Uber here. see also this Axios piece, which not only does a better job of explaining the situation with regard to arbitration but includes a rebuke of Uber by the judge. And lastly notes that Waymo has been granted a partial injunction against Uber, though the details remain secret.
Anthony Levandowski, who has until now led Uber’s self-driving group, has been removed from his role during the lawsuit between the company and Waymo over the alleged stealing of LIDAR technology by Levandowski. He’s staying at Uber, and will continue in various other responsibilities there, but will no longer be involved in the area of technology which is at the heart of the case, which means that group will have a new lead from among the group of employees Uber poached from Carnegie Mellon some years ago. That’s interesting, because there’s been some conflict between Levandowski’s group and the CM group at Uber in the past. This week, Levandowski also failed in his bid to use the 5th amendment to protect himself and Uber during the lawsuit, which should make the case both more interesting and potentially more damaging for him. Uber has tried to distance itself from the issues at the core of the lawsuit, suggesting that the alleged actions would have been taken Levandowski operating as an individual employee rather than on behalf of the company, but that argument is getting harder to make. Removing Levandowski at least limits the perception that he’s still using what he learned at Waymo to help Uber with its own LIDAR technology, something Uber has denied all along. The lawsuit, meanwhile, is getting increasingly nasty, with Uber targeting senior Waymo executives for depositions apparently on the basis of mere spite, because they have nothing to do with the details of the litigation.
via Business Insider