Uber and Waymo are finally having their day in court. Alphabet’s self-driving arm, Waymo, and Uber gave their opening statements in front of a jury on Monday, commencing the courtroom phase of what has already been a messy legal battle.
The day was entirely about opening arguments, but both Uber’s and Waymo’s strategy centers largely on one thing: Our opponent stooped to the levels they did because they were afraid we would beat them.
Uber claims Waymo’s lawsuit is baseless and is only suing because they were upset they were losing top talent at a time when competing companies began gaining ground. Waymo claims Uber was worried about getting beat in the self-driving car race so it stole Waymo’s trade secrets when it hired one of its former executives.
Here’s what’s at stake:
If Uber loses the case, it could have to pay out millions of dollars in damages and potentially stall its self-driving efforts. For Waymo, losing the case will have largely reputational risks. Alphabet rarely, if ever, sues over any issues with people or other companies, which means this litigation carries a lot of weight.
Here are Waymo’s claims:
- Uber was worried about getting beat in the self-driving car race so it stole Waymo’s trade secrets when it hired one of its former executives, Anthony Levandowski, who had downloaded 14,000 files of Waymo data. The controversial engineer, who was fired by Uber in May, has pleaded the Fifth, much to the dismay of Uber’s legal team.
- But the villain Waymo has set its sights on isn’t Levandowski. It’s former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, characterized by Waymo’s attorneys as a rapacious executive whose win-at-all-costs attitude and frustration with his company’s self-driving efforts led him to conspire with Levandowski to steal the “sauce” that catapulted Alphabet’s self-driving development to be the leader of the pack.
- “Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time at Uber, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” Alphabet attorney Charles Veerhoven said in his opening statement.
- “There will be documents ... internal documents from Uber where the CEO of the company said ‘we want their cheat codes’,” he added.
Here’s what Waymo presented as evidence:
- Texts between Levandowski and Kalanick showing the two talking about winning at all costs and finding shortcuts.
- Levandowski says, “we need to think through the strategy to take all the shortcuts we can find.” In another he says “I just see this as a race and we need to win, second place is the first looser [sic].”
- Notes from a meeting between Kalanick and the head of Uber’s autonomous group at the time, John Bares, discussing the acquisition of the startup, Otto, which Levandowski founded upon leaving Google. The notes show Kalanick wanted to obtain Otto’s intellectual property, road map, data and “pound of flesh.”
- Those notes outline the pros and cons of
,Levandowski is connected, motivated and has autonomy in his blood. The cons: Uber would have to manage his ego.
- Also from notes, Bares wonders why Levandowski was leaving Waymo when the company was “so close to grabbing the crown?”
- Alphabet attorneys presented an email from a Morrison & Foerster lawyer who was involved in investigating Otto before Uber acquired it. The email indicated Levandowski had files that had “highly confidential information” including source code, design software and “everything you need to create a self-driving car.”
Uber as the defense doesn’t have to prove anything, just cast enough doubt on Waymo’s claims. Waymo has to prove both motivation on the part of Uber to intentionally steal trade secrets, and that the information Uber stole was proprietary.
“That was quite the story,” Uber attorney Bill Carmody said in his opening statement. “I want to tell you right up front. It didn’t happen, there’s no conspiracy, there’s no cheating, period end of story.”
Here’s Uber’s strategy so far:
- Uber argues that none of the files Levandowski downloaded ever made it to Uber.
- Uber argues that any information Waymo alleges is proprietary is actually in the public domain.
- Shift any culpability to Levandowski. Uber’s attorney said how the company regrets hiring Levandowski and that he was fired for not cooperating with the case. (However, it’s worth noting Levandowski wasn’t fired until about three months after Waymo filed the suit against Uber.)
- Uber claims the only thing it did wrong was hiring Levandowski. In fact, Uber attorneys presented an email between Alphabet executives who themselves called Levandowski’s character into question, making the point that the company still brought him on.
And here’s the evidence Uber presented:
- An email between the founder of the Google self-driving project, Sebastian Thrun, and the former vice president of corporate development at Google, Dave Lawee:
“I now question whether Anthony is fit to lead Chauffeur. I hear similar concerns from the engineering team. Several people have contacted me that they have concerns about his commitment and integrity.
“As Google I suppose I am willing to take the risk with Anthony, but I can say, definitively, that if I was choosing a business partner to start a company with, there is no way in hell I would proceed.”
- Blaming Levandowski also could bolster Uber’s argument that Waymo’s real motivation for suing Uber is retribution for losing Levandowski, other top talent, and possibly ceding ground to Uber.
- Uber attorneys presented emails from Google’s head of people and culture Stacy Savides Sullivan that said Alphabet CEO Larry Page was upset Waymo “allowed” Levandowski to leave the company. The email also read, “Larry is worried he’s going to start something competitive.”
- In later emails between Waymo CEO John Krafcik and Head of People Operations Joanne Chin, Krafcik expressed his concern about losing key self-driving talent. In an email after two more people moved to Levandowski’s startup, Otto, Krafcik wrote, “need a plan.” During Krafcik’s testimony, Uber attorneys cited emails wherein he revealed Waymo was in the middle of a hiring freeze as well.
- “My job as a CEO will always be about hiring great people and retaining great people,” Krafcik said when asked whether he was concerned about attrition.
- Another email about talent retention from former head of Google’s self-driving project, Chris Urmson, to Page, Sergey Brin and other top executives in 2015:
“Uber is making a significant investment in self-driving cars. This is particularly notable ... as they have the existing business in place to roll out effectively.
“Uber is acquiring the people I suggested we hire 1.5 years ago but was denied the opportunity to do so.”
- Waymo’s preoccupation with Uber has indeed been evident since 2015. An internal Waymo presentation Uber attorneys presented reads: “What would it take to consume all of Uber’s profits in 2025?”
It’ll be up to the jury to determine if Waymo has presented enough evidence to prove that not only did Uber steal trade secrets, that the company was using them in their current self-driving technology. Painting Waymo as a company that was growing increasingly concerned over losing top engineers to Uber — in addition to harboring personal grievances against Levandowski — could help the ride-hail company convince the jury that Waymo had ulterior motives with its lawsuit.