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Tensions are rising between Waymo and Uber as the U.S. judge who presided over the case denied a motion to move it into private arbitration, while also referring the case to federal prosecutors.
Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car division, originally filed a lawsuit against Uber in February, accusing the latter company of stealing trade secrets related to autonomous vehicle systems.
Presiding U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, in a court order on Thursday, has asked the Department of Justice to investigate possible intellectual property theft related to that lawsuit. Alsup added that he took “no position” whether criminal prosecution was needed, but the case is set to be referred to the United States Attorney, according to the order.
Similarly, in a separate but related court order Thursday, Alsup also denied Uber’s motion to push the case into private arbitration, according to the New York Times. That’s a major setback for Uber, as private arbitrations are normally cheaper and quicker, don’t become public record, and don’t occur before a jury. Waymo, of course, opposed that move.
Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, had originally accused one of its former engineers — Anthony Levandownski — of stealing confidential documents before leaving Waymo and founding Otto, his own self-driving trucking company. Otto was snatched up by Uber in August 2016 to the tune of $680 billion. The case centers around the use of Lidar, a technology that Levandowski spearheaded while at Waymo. The Alphabet-owned company insists that the stolen trade secrets benefitted Uber’s own developments.
Interestingly, Uber has yet to deny that Levandowski stole trade secrets — instead insisting that none of Waymo’s intellectual property actually made its way into Uber’s systems. Levandowski, for his part, has refused to testify, citing the constitutional rights against self-incrimination. Judge Alsup, in turn, has called this move an obstruction to the case. Uber has announced that Levandowski would step down from working on any Lidar-related technology while the case while still being investigated. Waymo, on the other hand, is still seeking an injunction that would prevent Uber from using its trade secrets, according to Reuters.