Judge in Uber–Waymo Suit Bars Levandowski from Self-Driving Car Project

But Uber is allowed to continue its self-driving car program—at least, for now.

Anthony Levandowski
Eric Risberg—AP

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup denied Waymo's request for an injunction that would have halted Uber's self-driving car program, but did grant a partial injunction that prevents Anthony Levandowski, the former Waymo employee at the center of the company's lawsuit against Uber, from working on it. The decision is a reprieve for Uber, which still faces a federal investigation over the matter.

Alsup made these rulings last Thursday, but release of details to the public was delayed while Uber and Waymo reviewed documents for sensitive information. The judge also ordered Uber to return any stolen documents to Waymo, and continues to take an ambiguous stance as to whether Uber benefitted from any information in those documents.

The ruling means Uber will be able to continue testing its self-driving cars, but without any meaningful involvement from Levandowski, who previously held a prominent position in the program. While not named in the lawsuit against Uber, Levandowski is at the center of the controversy. He allegedly stole 14,000 Waymo files before leaving to form his own startup, Otto, which was bought by Uber last year. Waymo believes Uber used some of that stolen information in its own self-driving car program.

Levandowski, who has pleaded the Fifth Amendment in the case, had previously recused himself from working on lidar sensors for self-driving cars, and was shifted to another job by Uber's brass. But after an Uber employee testified that Levandowski was still talking to the new head of the self-driving car program on a regular basis, Alsup declared that he was officially barred from any further work on lidar, which is a critical sensor that helps autonomous vehicles "see" their environment.

Alsup has indicated he believes there is sufficient evidence that Levandowski stole the 14,000 Waymo files, but earlier this month he said Waymo hadn't produced a "smoking gun" showing Uber had actually used the information. In his decision calling for Uber to return any stolen files, he called Waymo's claim of patent infringement "meritless," and said the company had "overreached, in attempting to claim ownership over general principles and approaches in the field."

However, Alsup also said it was likely that information from the 14,000 files in question, or possibly the files themselves, "has seeped into Uber's lidar development efforts; and at least some of said information likely qualifies for trade secret protection."

The latest decision likely gave both sides a reason to claim victory. Waymo gets a partial injunction, a requirement that Uber return any stolen files, and validation in the form of Alsup's comments about its trade secrets "seeping" into Uber's LIDAR program. Uber's self-driving car program lives to fight another day and, considering that Uber itself had supposedly sidelined him already, Levandowski's removal from the equation shouldn't dramatically change the status quo.

Indeed, comments from both sides were fairly upbeat.

"We are pleased with the court's ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around lidar," an Uber spokesperson said. "We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up."

"Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions," a Waymo spokesperson said. "We welcome the order to prohibit Uber's use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology. The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct."