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.
GM’s Cruise Automation unit has acquired Strobe, a startup which has been working on “chip-scale” LIDAR technology for use in self-driving cars. LIDAR is one of the big bottlenecks in autonomous tech development, both expensive and low-volume at present, with Velodyne currently the dominant supplier. As this Recode piece points out, GM is a bit more deeply invested in autonomous driving than most other legacy carmakers, having acquired Cruise itself as the “brain” of the system and also running various experiments of ride sharing and other services through Cruise and the GM Maven brand, and this acquisition extends that integration. My guess is that the technology was at a fairly early stage – the company seems to have just 11 employees – and it’s therefore unproven, though GM had an existing investment and may know something other potential acquirers didn’t, allowing it to swoop in at an opportune moment to take it off the market. Waymo and Uber, of course, are battling in court over the latter’s attempts to make its own in the image (or otherwise) of Waymo’s.
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 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.
Waymo-Uber Injunction Made Public (May 15, 2017)
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
Cadillac takes aim at Tesla’s Autopilot with ‘hands-free’ Super Cruise technology – The Verge (Apr 10, 2017)
One of my big objections to Tesla’s Autopilot technology has always been the name, which connotes a level of autonomy the system doesn’t actually aspire to and which it certainly doesn’t deliver. Tesla has partly dealt with that issue by updating its software to require users to keep their hands on the wheel, but does little else to ensure attention, which means that even when the system performs as it should, there’s little guarantee that the human driver will. Cadillac today announced a new Autopilot-like feature but very sensibly named it in a way much more likely to give buyers and users an accurate impression of what it does, tying it to the very familiar cruise control already in almost all new cars. However, the more important thing in my view is that the system also comes with lots of protections designed to ensure that the driver does actually pay attention, which is a huge issue in situations where attention but not activity is required, such as driving a car with this kind of intelligent cruise control running. There’s a long history of scientific research in this area, and it all says that paying attention in a passive way like this is something human beings aren’t good at, and Cadillac’s new system is designed to help the driver stay attentive. The big question about this new system, though, is that although it’s being billed as LIDAR-based, it’s not using a LIDAR in the car but instead using mapping data previously generated by LIDAR, which means it’s non-real-time. That, in turn, means that if anything has changed in the road environment since the map was generated, the car won’t know about it, and GM doesn’t seem to have talked much about how frequently it’s going to update its maps of US and Canadian highways to mitigate this.
via The Verge
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
For all the hyberbolic references to monopolies that sometimes afflict the tech industry, here’s a case where one company really does have what appears to be a monopoly, and on a critical component for autonomous vehicles: LIDAR. LIDAR is the same visual radar technology at the heart of the Waymo-Uber lawsuit, because they’re two of only a very small number of companies currently attempting to make their own, while everyone else buys them from Velodyne at $30-40,000 a pop. The global market for LIDAR is currently in the thousands, and the company expects to ship around ten thousand this year, but it and others would obviously have to ramp to tens of millions a year to supply the global automotive industry in the longer term. And those prices will come down massively – Waymo has supposedly reduced the cost dramatically for its own units.
via The Information