Uber And Waymo Lawyers Hurl Accusations In Opening Statements

The trade-secrets trial between the two companies is underway.

Nvidia

The Uber vs. Waymo trade-secrets trial began Monday, and the drama is already reaching a fever pitch. The first day of the trial saw both sides give opening statements, signaling just how dirty this legal fight could get. Both Uber and Waymo worked hard to depict each other as mustache-twirling villains.

Waymo is suing Uber because it believes engineer Anthony Levandowski stole confidential files and delivered them to the ride-sharing company. But in Waymo's opening statement, lawyers focused not on Levandowski, but on former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. They said Uber was falling behind in the autonomous-car race, and that Kalanick was willing to use illegal methods to gain an advantage.

"Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time at Uber, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law," Waymo attorney Charles Veerhoven said in the opening statement. He said Kalanick urged Uber employees to find "cheat codes" that would help speed up development of the company's self-driving cars.

Evidence presented by Waymo (the former Google self-driving car project) included texts between Kalanick and Levandowski in which the pair discussed the importance of winning at all costs. Levandowski said they needed to "take all the shortcuts we can find" and that "I just see this as a race and we need to win."

Levandowski left Waymo in late 2015 to form an autonomous-driving startup called Otto, which was bought by Uber in August 2016. Waymo lawyers presented notes and emails in an effort to prove that Uber officials knew Levandowski was in possession of stolen files before he was brought onboard. One email from a Morrison & Foerster lawyer who helped investigate Otto before the purchase indicated Levandowski had "highly confidential information" including "everything you need to create a self-driving car."

In its opening statement, Uber flatly denied the accusations. Its lawyers admitted the company now regrets hiring Levandowski, but that it never received any stolen trade secrets from him. Uber fired Levandowski last year because he wouldn't cooperate with efforts to fight the Waymo lawsuit, and now it's saying his character was always questionable.

Uber lawyers presented an email between Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google's self-driving car project, and then Google vice president of corporate development David Lawee. The two discussed Levandowski's character, mentioning negative feedback from other Google self-driving car engineers and questioning his fitness as a leader.

Uber also argued that the main motivation for Waymo's lawsuit is wounding a competitor. Lawyers presented emails indicating that Larry Page, CEO of Google and Waymo parent company Alphabet, was upset that Levandowski was "allowed" to leave. Other emails from top executives expressed concern that Uber was investing heavily in self-driving cars and hiring top talent. A 2015 internal Waymo presentation asked what it would take to "consume all of Uber's profits in 2025."

As the defense, Uber doesn't have to prove anything. But depicting Waymo as having ulterior motives can't hurt its chances. Waymo must prove not only that Levandowski stole trade secrets, but that Uber actually used them to improve its own self-driving car project to claim victory. That's what Waymo lawyers will attempt to do over the next few weeks.