Uber and Google are locked in a legal battle that could have huge implications for the future of the self-driving car industry. If Uber loses its lawsuit, it could cost the company millions and set back Uber's self-driving car effort by months — months Uber probably can't afford to lose.
The lawsuit started when Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit, alleged that Uber is using sensors based on stolen Waymo designs and asked the courts to block Uber from using the designs.
Uber fired back in a legal brief on Friday, denying that its sensors were based on Waymo's technology and accusing Waymo of trying to tie up a legitimate competitor with frivolous litigation.
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It's not uncommon for the invention of an important new technology to be followed by legal battles over rights to that technology. Apple, for example, fought a years-long legal battle with Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and other makers of Android-based phones in the early years of the smartphone industry. Apple won some money from these lawsuits, but strategically speaking, they ended in a draw. Apple's competitors were able to continue churning out Android-based smartphones, and Android ended up controlling a large majority of the global smartphone market.
In contrast, there's a real possibility that Waymo could beat Uber decisively in court. "This is an extraordinary case," said William Alsup, the California federal judge who is overseeing the case, on Wednesday. His take on Google's evidence: "I've never seen a record this strong in 42 years."
If the court orders Uber not to use technology similar to Waymo's, it could set back Uber's self-driving car project by many months. And Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said his company will be in big trouble if another company beats it to market with self-driving technology.
"If we are not tied for first, then the entity that's in first then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher-quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing," Kalanick said in a 2016 interview.
Uber hoped that hiring some of Waymo's top engineers would help it catch up to Waymo. But if Waymo proves that this was really a ploy to copy its technology, the move could backfire spectacularly.