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With Google’s lawsuit, Uber’s buck may stop here

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A taxi’s dashcam caught this self-driving car running a red light on Third Street in December. Uber originally said a human was driving. (Courtesy photo)
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About a month ago, I met a Lyft driver from Benicia who drives 60 to 80 hours a week and uses his income to continue building his family real estate empire. As a former Army man, he told me the long hours weren’t too taxing. And considering he owns two apartment buildings in Berkeley and three in Contra Costa County, income from Lyft or Uber — which he used to drive for — is not a big deal.

We talked about how long he can keep driving, and he was confident that he was going to do so for a very long time. Despite self-driving cars actively being developed by Uber to replace human drivers, he said Uber was too unstable to fully implement this technology in the near future.

Perhaps he also worked as a clairvoyant when not picking up Lyft passengers. In the past few weeks, Uber’s touted self-driving technology has come under both legal and public scrutiny after Alphabet — Google’s parent company — sued Uber over how it obtained its technology. Alphabet alleges that the technology for Otto, a self-driving truck company acquired by Uber last year, was stolen from Alphabet’s own Waymo self-driving technology.

But the details get far more salacious. Alphabet alleges Otto founder Anthony Levandowski downloaded proprietary data from Alphabet’s self-driving files. In December 2015, Levandowski download 14,000 design files onto a memory card reader and then wiped all the data from the laptop, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also lays out a timeline where Levandowski and Uber were in cahoots with one another before the download operation. Alphabet alleges the two parties were in communications with each other since the summer of 2015, when Levandowski still worked for Waymo. Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016, started Otto the next month and joined Uber in August as vice president of Uber’s self-driving technology after Otto was purchased by Uber for $700 million.

In a lawsuit that reads like part James Bond and part HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” the lawsuit is a rare instance where a Silicon Valley giant sued another. Google rarely sues any competitor over patent infringement, but when something as valuable as self-driving technology is at stake, all principles go out the window. This may become the biggest copyright infringement case brought forth in Silicon Valley since Apple v. Microsoft in 1994, when Apple sued Microsoft over the alleged likeness in the latter’s graphic user interface.

For Uber, this lawsuit is an affront to its carefully planned but aggressively fast pursuit toward a fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles to cut down on their massive labor costs. Uber founder Travis Kalanick previously stated self-driving cars is “existential” for the business. Kalanick has been gung-ho about putting Uber in the forefront of this emerging technology, from demonstrating the car to reporters in Pittsburgh, Pa., to rolling out self-driving cars in San Francisco. Despite having a division of self-driving engineers hired out of Carnegie Mellon and working in Pittsburgh since 2015, Uber poached Levandowski to speed up its rollout, according to Recode.

Many San Franciscans remember the short-lived rollout as a fiasco where cars ran red lights multiple times on the first day. But recent reports show just how far the technology is still behind. Despite the defiant defense of Uber — provided by none other than Levandowski — blaming the issues on human error, The New York Times found the problems were the cars themselves. And for the cherry on top, Uber employees had stickers in OSHA orange that read “Safety third” as a demonstration for how much they prioritized public safety over company profits, according to Bloomberg.

The legal battle is underway. Alphabet (technically Waymo) is looking for an injunction against Uber’s self-driving technology. Last week, attorneys for both companies argued over which Uber attorneys should be allowed to view the trade secrets that Waymo alleged were stolen.

This should be a long and ugly fight and may reveal many interesting things about both companies and self-driving cars. But for our friend in Benicia, it may just be another “I told you so” moment.

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To paraphrase a political quip, as Snapchat goes, so goes Facebook. It’s been one of the most drama-filled gossips in Silicon Valley. Facebook — and its subsidiary Instagram — has been accused of copying many of Snapchat’s products.

Last August, Instagram cloned Snapchat Stories — short-lasting pictures or videos with the ability to add in captions, emojis and even face filters. And last week, Facebook announced it was going to bring Instagram Stories to its platform.

After recently going public, Snapchat has been crying wolf at Facebook. Its user growth has stalled since Instagram launched its own Stories feature. Its stock price has steadily dipped, with market analysts basically asking: why buy Snapchat stocks when Facebook does the same thing with a much larger consumer reach?

We just saw Google v. Uber shape up. Can we expect Snapchat v. Facebook in the near future?

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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