Company / division: Waymo
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
We finally have a fleshed-out response from Uber to the Waymo lawsuit over stealing of LIDAR technology, and it doesn’t do much more than muddy the water over this issue. The biggest sticking point here is that Anthony Levandowski, who is alleged to have stolen files from Waymo before he left and used these to develop LIDAR technology at Otto and then Uber, refuses to cooperate with the investigation, and Uber refuses to compel him as an employee to cough up the files. Uber also argues that its LIDAR design is different in key respects from Waymo’s and therefore that it clearly hasn’t been copied from it. The judge seems to be highly skeptical of Uber’s claimed inability to do anything with regard to the Levandowski files, and seems minded to grant at least a temporary injunction against Uber’s LIDAR technology. Uber’s claims that such an injunction would significantly harm its business seem like nonsense – this technology has nothing to do with its core business today and is merely being tested in a few cities. A longer-term injunction would obviously be more damaging because it would stop Uber from advancing the technology, but in and of itself that’s not a valid argument against such an injunction should the judge determine that the design was copied. Lots more to come on this, no doubt.
via Business Insider
This article is based on a study by a company called Navigant Research, and it seems to be an evaluating of companies’ strategic assets rather than any actual capabilities today, so it’s worth noting that context for their rankings of companies here. Notably, they rank traditional carmakers in the first six spots, with Waymo apparently the first non-traditional / tech company in the rankings. That’s notable, because all the numbers suggest Waymo is out in front in testing of autonomous driving technology in California by a long way, and although we don’t have equivalent data for Michigan, where Ford does much of its testing, I’d be surprised if it had done many more miles. So this is mostly an evaluation of the benefits the big automakers derive from their existing massive scale and capabilities in building vehicles and bringing them to market, something none of the pure tech companies has (Tesla, of course, has some small-scale manufacturing capability and is looking to ramp fast, but comes in 12th in the rankings nonetheless). This jives with my perception that, even as these tech companies do increasingly well in developing their own technology, they’re very unlikely in most cases to build the cars, and as such the traditional car companies are still in a position of strength and potential leadership when it comes to actually building and deploying the technology.
via USA Today
This feels like something of a slime ball move on Uber’s part on two fronts: firstly, trying to move the court case with Waymo out of open court and behind closed doors; and secondly, essentially trying to push the case off its back and onto Levandowski’s. I had said previously that the course was going to be fascinating for the details it would provide about how Uber developed technologies and how it would defend against what look like fairly solid allegations, but if it gets its wish here we won’t get to see any of that. But I think it’s the attempt to make this a case about an employee rather than the company that seems particularly sleazy – if the allegations are indeed true, then Uber and not Levandowski benefited the most, and making this seem like a dispute between an employee and former employer feels like a total misrepresentation.
via USA Today
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.
Alphabet’s Waymo filed an injunction against Uber for allegedly stealing intellectual property – Recode (Mar 10, 2017)
The fact that Waymo is suing Uber isn’t new, but this new step of filing for an injunction is, and that’s important because it could speed things up considerably. Judging the case in full could have taken months if not years, but a request for an injunction will involve convincing a judge in a much shorter space of time that there’s enough merit to the case for him or her to intervene in the near term. So we’ll know rather sooner how solid Waymo’s case here is, and will likely also get additional details from both sides about exactly what’s been going on. Importantly, we’ll get more from Uber than its brief initial statement about the accusations being baseless, which will be intriguing because from where I sit the forensic evidence looks fairly compelling. As I’ve said before, though, the toughest aspect of this for Waymo and its lawyers is proving that Levandowski actually used the files he downloaded rather than simply his memories of work he’d previously done.
California and Michigan have to be the two states where the most testing of autonomous vehicle technology is being done, with the former home to most of the tech companies in the space and the latter the home of several legacy automakers. The FT is here citing data from the California DMV, which you can see in its raw form here. What’s fascinating is the mix of companies here, as I’ve said before – there are several traditional carmakers (VW, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru), several big names from the tech world (Waymo, Tesla, Uber, Baidu, Faraday Future, and Cruise [now part of GM]), and a variety of other smaller companies. But Waymo has by far the largest number of cars and miles driven (and most accidents). But the California DMV is certainly the source of some of the most interesting data on self-driving testing anywhere in the world right now.
via Financial Times
Uber’s self-driving unit quietly bought firm with tech at heart of Alphabet lawsuit – Reuters (Mar 1, 2017)
This is an interesting angle on the Uber-Waymo lawsuit over the alleged stealing of LiDAR technology by Anthony Levandowski – it appears Levandowski’s Otto acquired a company which specialized in LiDAR technology before it was itself acquired by Uber, providing an alternative theory for how the company was apparently able to get up to speed so quickly on the technology. One of Waymo’s key arguments in its suit was that Levandowski appeared to make unreasonably rapid progress on LiDAR following Otto’s founding, and that the only explanation was theft of ideas, designs and so on from Waymo. As an interesting side note, see also this newly-released October 2016 interview with Anthony Levandowski from Forbes, in which he somewhat bizarrely volunteers the information that he didn’t steal any IP from Google when he left. He also talks through his long history with autonomous driving technology, which raises a key point here: clearly Levandowski learned a lot about this technology over the years, and taking that knowledge with him to a new employer clearly isn’t stealing. So how does Waymo prove in court that Otto/Uber used the documents he allegedly downloaded rather than his personal knowledge (or technology from somewhere completely different) in designing LiDAR systems? If you know the best way to build a LiDAR system because you’ve done it before, are you obligated to act as if you have no idea how to do it when you move to a new employer? I’m not a lawyer, but I think some of these questions are fascinating, and are likely to be critical in this case.
Waymo Sues Uber over Stealing of Confidential Information (Feb 23, 2017)
Alphabet autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo is suing Uber and its Otto subsidiary over alleged stealing of confidential information by Anthony Levandowski, who was one of the early executives at Waymo and subsequently left abruptly in early 2016 and immediately unveiled a self-driving truck company, Otto. That company, in turn, was acquired just a few months later by Uber. Waymo has done some fairly detailed investigate work that’s outlined in the complaint, and discovered that six weeks before Levandowski’s resignation, he downloaded lots of files from Waymo’s servers, and it argues that these in turn informed Otto’s (now Uber’s) LiDAR designs. As this blog post from Waymo says, fierce competition in autonomous driving technology is a good thing – it’s pushing the market forward rapidly and leading to some great innovations that should benefit consumers. But there are obviously lines companies shouldn’t cross as they compete, and this would be one of those, if it’s proven to be true. This is the second lawsuit in recent weeks involving employees moving between autonomous driving companies – the first involved Tesla and a startup. In both cases, the allegation is in part about stealing proprietary information. Given that Uber is already dealing with the fallout from a sexual harassment and discrimination blowup in the past week and still reeling from the #deleteUber campaign, this is terrible timing, but may also be a sign that the company’s aggressive stance on competition is hurting it in more ways than one.
This is a really important aspect of autonomous driving that’s not talked about nearly enough. In the SAE levels system for describing autonomy in vehicles, all the layers between 0 and 5 require the driver and vehicle to work together at least to some extent, which means that even when the car has taken over a task, the driver is supposed to remain ready to take over when the car requests him or her to re-engage. The problem here is that we tend to switch off, whether deliberately or merely passively, when our focus isn’t actively required, and that means that machines have to give us an awful lot of notice when we need to take over. In practical terms, that’s often impossible, and that can actually make cars operating at levels 3-4 in particular less safe rather than safer than human drivers. That has important implications for those manufacturers which seem to be trying to work incrementally up from Level 2 to Level 4 or 5 over time, like Tesla, because there seems to be an increasing consensus that we may need to skip those middle levels entirely. And it also means, as I’ve pointed out a couple of times before, that lots of experience operating test or production vehicles at Level 2 or 3 is not nearly the same as being ready to produce a Level 4 or 5 vehicle.
via Bloomberg (we discussed this topic in depth during this episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast and this talk by Gill Pratt, head Toyota’s Research Institute, is also very illuminating on the same topic)
One Reason Staffers Quit Google’s Car Project? The Company Paid Them So Much – Bloomberg (Feb 13, 2017)
That’s an interesting hook for the article, but far more interesting than the ease of hiring away Waymo employees is the fact that Alphabet had such a kooky compensation scheme in place at all – more evidence that the Porat era has introduced much-needed financial discipline in the Other Bets. Long story short: Alphabet paid massive bonuses to employees in its autonomous driving division based on “project milestones” which had nothing to do with financial performance (since the division won’t generate revenue for years). This, in turn, has apparently loosened up some employees who have enough financial security to take risks on leaving for competitors. It really is remarkable how the Google/Other Bets split has shone a spotlight on some of the crazy largesse in the latter businesses.
The headline is news, I guess, but far more interesting are the detailed reports each company testing autonomous vehicles in California has submitted for 2016. These reports lay out – in some cases in quite a bit of detail – the results of testing during the year, including the miles driven and the number of disengagements. This is a great counterpoint to the article last year which suggested Tesla had an edge over others in autonomous driving because its cars had driven many more miles – the reality is that Tesla’s truly autonomous cars drove just 550 miles on California roads, while Google/Waymo’s drove 636,000, or over a thousand times as many miles. What’s more, Waymo’s vehicles required just 0.2 driver interventions per thousand miles relative to Tesla’s 0.33 per mile. It’s also notable that the vast majority of Tesla’s disengagements were on wet roads – road conditions continue to be a major factor in the ability of many autonomous driving systems to function correctly, which obviously puts them a very long way from mass production and release to customers. I’m planning to dig into all these numbers some more.