A high-profile legal fight took place in a San Francisco courthouse between Uber and Google spinoff Waymo, which accused the ride-hailing company of stealing its self-driving car technology. (Feb. 7) AP
SAN FRANCISCO — After two days of legal wrangling, lawyers for Google’s self-driving car company Waymo on Wednesday injected a little bit of Hollywood into the protracted corporate scuffle over whether Uber stole trade secrets in its rushed quest to bring self-driving cars to the masses.
Michael Douglas’ voice rolled through the courtroom: “Greed is right. Greed works." The iconic video clip from the 1987 movie "Wall Street" attempted to convey a clear message to the jury: Uber is an aggressive, greedy company willing to do anything to win. Even steal from Waymo.
That sentiment played on Uber's well-documented history of ruthless business exploits that sometimes ran afoul of regulators and business partners. But the anecdote didn't answer the fundamental question the case tries to resolve: whether those tactics extended to stealing eight trade secrets from Waymo as a short cut to developing key self-driving car sensors.
That question, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup repeatedly has said, is the crux the case rests on — and not Uber's oft-compromised reputation of fostering a frat-boy culture that discriminated against women and condoned secretive surveillance programs of rivals.
The YouTube clip of cold-blooded financier Gordon Gekko was sent as a link in a 2016 message from then-Google self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski to Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO at the time. Levandowski had expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of progress at Google, and Kalanick was interested in hiring him to fire up Uber's fledgling autonomous car program, something that was seen as critical to Uber's business model.
In the text, Levandowski sent Kalanick a link to the video along with the words, "Here's the speech you need to give,” followed by two “wink” emoticons.
On the witness stand, Kalanick brushed off the suggestion that the link was loaded was significance and sparred a bit with Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven, who asked Kalanick if he clicked on the link.
"I think I would have," said Kalanick.
Verhoeven: "That's a famous speech."
Kalanick: "That's a movie, it's fake. I've seen the video before, and the movie."
It was one of multiple examples Waymo presented of Uber's early and, in its eyes, underhanded attempts to connect with someone who was still in its employ in a tech arena engaged in a full-on fight for talent.
But Kalanick countered with a simple line of reasoning: That it sought out self-driving car engineers only after Google, an early investor in Uber, repeatedly ignored his requests to discuss how Google could be the autonomous car provider for Uber's ride hailing service.
After Kalanick saw that Google was not only declining to be an autonomous tech partner but was also discussing the development of a new ride-sharing platform — currently in testing in Phoenix — he decided to begin conversations with Google engineer Levandowski. Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page was not pleased.
Said Kalanick: "(Page) kept saying, 'You're taking our people, you're taking our IP [intellectual property]. I said, 'We are taking people but your people are not your IP. If you have an issue on IP, we have clean processes to make sure people we hire from your company are not bringing something over."
What's at stake
The trial pits two tech titans against each other in a very public brawl.
If self-driving car pioneer Waymo succeeds in convincing the jury Uber stole its trade secrets and used them to jump-start its autonomous vehicle program, it could stop Uber in its tracks, along with demanding as much as $1.86 billion in damages.
If Uber wins, it’s a blow to Alphabet and Google and a green light to Uber to move full steam ahead with its plans for transportation hegemony.
Soon after the clip was shown, Kalanick testified that the company hired Levandowski “absolutely not” to get access to trade secrets, but because he was “an incredible visionary, incredible technologist and very charming.”
In his second day of testimony, Kalanick was relaxed and calm on the stand, only sipping occasionally from a small bottle of water for pauses.
Waymo has backed up its claims of trade theft by detailing how Uber's CEO courted star engineer Levandowski and planned to buy his company — even before he started it —covered up the recruitment and indemnified Levandowski and the Otto team against possible future lawsuits one it did buy his company.
But the way Uber tells it, that subterfuge was for a good reason: it was preparing for open warfare with Google and cofounder Page over self-driving car professionals. That's why, according to Uber, it hid its interest and discussions with Levandowski and made legal attempts to indemnify itself against possible future lawsuits.
The bad blood between the two companies started with Uber’s 2015 hiring of 40-some experts from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics program, which heralded Uber’s very public move into the self-driving car field, one which until then Google had dominated.
“They were angry and upset, that we were doing (Page’s) thing…. We were hearing that generally Google was super not happy, unpumped about us doing this,” Kalanick said Wednesday.
In August 2016, shortly after Uber unveiled its self-driving car plans and its acquisition of Levandowski's Otto start-up, Alphabet senior executive David Drummond resigned from Uber's board over conflicts of interest.
When Kalanick's testimony came to an end, Alsup told him, "Mr Kalanick you're free to go, go on vacation." As he walked down the aisle out of the courtroom he stopped as an older man stood up from the wooden benches where the public sits and gave him a hug.
The man was his father Donald, who had been in critical condition after a boating accident near Fresno which killed Kalanick's mother Bonnie in May. After the hug, Kalanick left the courtroom.
One surprise came with the next witness, Otto co-founder Lior Ron. He testified that Uber's arch-rival Lyft had also had some early talks with Otto, the self-driving trucking company Uber bought in August 2016 for around $680 million. Those talks consisted of "verbal discussions," he said, but didn't go further.
Lyft declined to comment.
The final portion of the day's testimony centered around a report Uber had commissioned to look into the assets and liabilities of its acquisition of Otto. The jury seemed to zone out slightly as lawyers went over line by line lists of files that had been deleted from Levandowski's various computers and hard drives.
The trial continues Thursday with Waymo continuing to call witnesses.