Uber knew as early as March 2016 that the former head of its self-driving program had downloaded information before leaving Google's autonomous vehicle unit, according to a court filing made public Wednesday.
However, the ride-hail giant — which is facing a bitter trade secrets lawsuit over allegations its ex-employee's actions — told the engineer not to bring Google information to Uber.
Google's autonomous vehicle unit was spun off into a new company called Waymo, under its parent company Alphabet, in December.
Waymo sued Uber in February, alleging that its former employee Anthony Levandowski stole self-driving car trade secrets and brought them to Uber. Court documents now show Levandowski told Uber employees – including former chief executive Travis Kalanick, who resigned earlier this week – that he had five discs containing Google information. But Kalanick told him that Uber didn't want the Google information, and advised against bringing the discs to Uber, according to court documents.
A magistrate judge also ruled Wednesday that Uber must provide the court with documents related to its acquisition of Otto, Levandowski's self-driving truck start-up. Uber acquired the company in the summer of 2016. The company was incorporated before Levandowski left Google in January of that year for the new venture. In court, Waymo alleged was a ruse designed so Uber could take Waymo's proprietary information.
Uber fired Levandowski in May. Levandowski has pleaded the Fifth Amendment and for months refused to comply with Uber's investigation into Waymo's claims, should the case become a criminal matter. His termination came after Uber first demoted Levandowski on April 27, citing the need to remove him from leadership over work involving LiDAR – the technology at hand in the lawsuit – pending a trial.
Uber has for months argued that its self-driving car technology is “fundamentally different” from Waymo’s, and that it does not possess the company's files. But its lawyers have also said that they "don’t have any basis for disputing" whether or not Levandowski stole the secrets at issue in the case. The magistrate judge ruled earlier this month that Uber must hand over a due diligence report related to Levandowski's startup Otto, which Uber acquired. But Uber disputed that decision. The judge ordered on Wednesday night that the company must produce the documents, which could offer further details as to how much Uber knew about Levandowski's alleged actions.
The revelation that Uber executives knew as early as March 2016 that Levandowski possessed Google information – despite leaving Google on January 27, 2016 – comes as part of a Waymo request for the court to hold Uber in contempt. On May 15, US District Judge William Alsup ordered Uber to return any driverless car documents its employees allegedly stolen from Google's Waymo by May 31.
That deadline quietly came and passed as Uber faced numerous other scandals, including the release of a blistering report into its workplace culture. So Waymo has asked the court to determine whether Uber should be held in contempt of that order because "the compliance deadline came and went without the return of a single one of the misappropriated files."