What Google’s lawsuit against Uber means for the future of self-driving cars

Uber is being sued for stealing important documents and schematics created by Google sister company Waymo. It's a big setback for self-driving car tech.

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Uber

Google is suing Uber over some stolen documentation and schematics.

The lawsuit alleges that Uber stole plans for the LIDAR sensors used in Google’s self-driving cars that scan for obstructions and allow the car to steer and brake automatically. Google developed the technology originally but it is now part of their sister company Waymo. (Both are now part of parent company Alphabet.) Google and Waymo found out about the schematics when an employee was wrongly copied on an email from a supplier.

It’s a serious claim, and the demands are clear. Waymo is asking for the stolen documents be returned. It’s 14,000 files or a total of about 10GB of data. Waymo is also demanding that Uber stop development on the self-driving car technology.

In recent months, it’s become clear that Waymo doesn’t intend to actually make a self-driving car, even though prototypes have been driving autonomously around San Francisco and other areas for years. The new plan, which could be a pivot or possibly the intention all along, is to create an operating system used for cars that are developed by automakers like Chrysler, who is working with Waymo and Google on the self-driving Pacifica minivan.

The reason this is a major setback is because Uber was testing self-driving cars with actual passengers in cities like Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona. There’s a human driver who keeps a light touch on the steering wheel, but it’s still an aggressive move (in a good way) to see how the cars operate in the real world and not only with professional testers (and no passengers).

More than anything, it’s a setback because there are way too many variables already when it comes to autonomous driving. Tesla is still the leader in making an actual production car that is semi-autonomous, but Uber was attempting to go much further (allegedly by using stolen technology) to go beyond “lab testing” and make robotic driving something that is actually useful and can help us get across town in a way that’s safer and more reliable.

Similar to how an autonomous bus might operate, the idea was to have a fleet of self-driving cars someday soon -- within a few years anyway -- that drive around a city picking up passengers and delivering them to their destination, all with an app you can use to follow along. There are still a lot of local regulations and insurance issues to work out, and those who signed up to take a ride in the Uber self-driving car had to agree to the obvious dangers.

Now, there are a lot of questions about how this will pan out from here. Uber could have worked partnered with Google and Waymo -- all companies involved have bucketloads of cash -- or found another company like Cruise Automation (now part of GM). A lot of the complexity of self-driving cars has to do with the sensors that scan the road and the related algorithms that adjust the car steering, speed, and braking to make it all work. There are hundreds or even thousands of variables -- nighttime driving, tight corners, congestion, people in the road, rain and snow.

Even if there’s a quick settlement, even if the allegations prove incorrect, and even if Uber emerges somehow without a dark shadow behind them, it’s still a setback for autonomous cars. The technology needs to move forward quickly, not get tangled up in lawsuits.

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