Less than a year ago, I filed a simple public records request in Nevada. I had been writing about driverless vehicles for a couple of years, and last May I was fascinated to see serial entrepreneur Anthony Levandowski leave Alphabet to launch Otto, a self-driving truck startup. I was particularly intrigued by a video of Ottos truck driving itself down a Nevada highway without the special license plate the state requires of autonomous vehicles.
The missing license plate was a small detail, but I wondered whether it was a sign that Otto had cut legal corners. I filed a Nevada Open Records Act request to find out more, and in due course published a story, here on Backchannel, detailing how Levandowski had indeed flouted Nevadas rulesactions a state official called illegal. In the meantime, Otto was acquired by Uber.
With Levandowski now in charge of Ubers entire self-driving program, the company has gotten into one scrape after another. A much-vaunted pilot of self-driving taxis in San Francisco was cut short because Uber would not apply for a testing permitand that happened after its cars had reportedly driven themselves through red lights. Otto also appears to have been breaking state rules with its self-driving trucks in California, raising the possibility of a similar ban.
But the real bombshell dropped last week, when Levandowskis former employer, the Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, filed a lawsuit alleging that he took over 14,000 confidential technical documents with him when he left, and subsequently used them to replicate Waymos circuit boards and laser-ranging lidar sensors at Uber. Uber calls the allegations baseless.
The Alphabet company had been hunting for evidence that its patented and secret lidar technology was being used by Uber. Waymo received such confirmation in response to a public records request it made to the Nevada Governors Office of Economic Development and Department of Motor Vehicles [DMV] on February 3, reads the complaint.
Except that events did not unfold in quite the way Waymo describes. Heres what really happened.
Waymos complaint details the detective work that led the company to suspect Levandowski. This included a forensic examination of his computer, and an emailmistakenly sent to Waymo by a hardware vendorshowing a design for Ubers lidar that bore a striking resemblance to Waymos own device. But none of this was enough for Waymo to accuse Uber, a company in which Alphabet holds a seven percent stake, of outright theft.
It was not until after my Backchannel story ran that Waymo says it made a public records request of Nevada state agencies.
In plowing through the fruits of that request, says Waymo, it found a reference to a [i]n-house custom built 64-laser lidar system that had the same characteristics as Waymos own. This was the final piece of the puzzle, reads the complaint. Two weeks later, Waymo filed its lawsuit at a federal court in San Francisco.
After reading Waymos complaint, I asked the Nevada agencies for a copy of the Alphabet companys request. The DMV called me back in confusion. Nevada had never received an Open Records Act request directly from Waymo, nor from any other Alphabet company. What the agency had received was a request from an attorney, who did not provide an affiliation, requesting duplicate documents from my request last fallfrom when I was investigating Otto and Uber. I had been chasing my own tail.
Returning to the files, I soon found the puzzle piece. It was in a document Otto had submitted in support of its application to operate the states first Autonomous Technology Certification Facility (ATCF). This is an independent organization that will assess all autonomous vehicles that want to operate (rather than just test) in Nevada, checking that they comply with the states safety requirements and traffic laws. The application was a success, and construction of the facility is now underway in a suburb of Las Vegas. (Yes, you read that rightUber will soon be assessing other companies compliance with safety rules.)
Ottos application boasted of many technical accomplishments qualifying it to operate the ATCF, including one short sentence about its lidar. Otto noted that it had developed an in-house custom built 64-laser (Class 1) emitting 6.4 million beams a second at 10Hz. Although Waymo did not refer to all these technical details in its complaint, this was just what the company needed to launch its lawsuit.
When I checked in with Waymo about this turn of events, the company said only that its Nevada records request was to investigate Ottos lidar. It did not comment on my role in uncovering the information they needed.
But are these technical details really a smoking gun for Waymo? I asked Alex Lidow, CEO and cofounder of Efficient Power Conversion, a provider of the gallium nitride chips found in many modern lidars.
Lidow explained that many lidars today use 32 lasers and 1 or 2 million beams per second, and that a 64-laser system emitting 6.4 million beams a second would give superior vertical resolution and quicker refreshes. This would be better able to capture small, fast objects such as bouncing balls or animals darting into the road. It would also be technically challenging to build. But I dont think the speed of the system or the number of laser pulses are definitive in any way to tell you whose system it is, he said.
Of course, the decision about whether this is proof of Levandowskis and Ubers wrongdoing can ultimately only be decided in court. In the meantime, there are always more public records requests to file.