Lyft Could Have Bought the Startup That Triggered the Uber-Waymo Trade Secrets Battle

Selling to Uber was never guaranteed, Otto co-founder Lior Ron says.

Uber Advanced Technologies Group

In August 2016, Uber bought Otto, an autonomous-driving startup founded by ex-Google employees Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron. Six months later, Waymo, the current incarnation of the Google self-driving car project, sued Uber, claiming the company used trade secrets stolen by Levandowski. But things could have turned out differently.

On the third day of the Uber-Waymo trial, Ron took the stand and said he and Levandowski considered selling the company to Lyft before making a deal with Uber. The testimony disputes Waymo's claim that Uber wanted to acquire Otto (and gain access to the stolen trade secrets) from the beginning, reveals that Lyft could have been at the center of the controversy instead of Uber.

In his testimony, Ron said he and Levandowski didn't even want to leave Waymo at first, according to Recode. The two pushed for the development of self-driving trucks, which later became the main focus of Otto. At the time, Waymo parent Alphabet wasn't interested in autonomous trucks. After it sued Uber, Waymo indicated that it would develop autonomous commercial vehicles, which makes one wonder what would have happened if it had made that decision earlier.

When Alphabet nixed their autonomous-truck plan, Ron said he and Levandowski began talking to both Uber and Lyft, saying they had "a lot of options on the table." Ron said he was concerned about Waymo's reaction to a deal with Uber because it "would be seen as competitive." But Lyft wasn't interested in self-driving trucks either, so Otto was sold to Uber.

The sale triggered the current legal battle between Waymo and Uber. Meanwhile, Lyft has ramped up its own self-driving car efforts and had a pretty good 2017, solidifying its status as Uber's main rival in U.S. ride sharing. What would have happened if Lyft had bought Otto?