Following nearly a year of mudslinging between two of the largest companies in the autonomous vehicle industry, Google and Uber reached a $245 million settlement last Friday, one week into the trial.
In February 2017, Waymo, Google’s spin-off company developing autonomous cars, sued Otto and its parent company Uber, alleging they stole intellectual property and trade secrets and infringed on Waymo’s patents. Although a settlement has been reached, Uber still maintains no stolen technology ever made it onto their servers.
The key piece of technology Waymo alleges Uber stole is its custom-built LinDAR system (Light Detection and Ranging) that works by “bouncing millions of laser beams off surrounding objects and measuring how long it takes for the light to be reflected, painting a 3D picture of the world.”
LinDAR’s ability to find and identify objects in its path allows the system to predict how potential objects will behave and drive accordingly. This is what allows self-driving cars to “see” what’s ahead on the road, such as cyclists, vehicles, and pedestrians, and avoid potential collisions.
When Waymo filed the suit last year, it also posted a statement on its website, detailing the context of its legal action against Otto and Uber. In 2016, Uber purchased a startup called Otto that was founded by former Waymo engineer, Anthony Levandowski. Prior to his resignation from Waymo in 2015, Levandowski had downloaded more than 14,000 files — 9.7 gigabytes of data — containing design files and test documentation of Waymo’s self-driving technology.
Later in 2016, an equipment supplier accidentally sent Waymo an email intended for Otto that contained designs strikingly similar to their own. When deposed by Waymo, Levandowski consistently pleaded the Fifth Amendment. On May 27, 2017, Uber fired Levandowski.
The designs are crucial to the development of autonomous cars. The use of laser vision is believed to be the tipping point towards fully safe self-driving cars. It offers higher resolution than radar and does not require additional powerful software to translate 2-D to 3-D that cameras do. However, LinDAR is not a new development. The technology was employed on NASA’s Apollo 5 to map the moon, but progress has stalled since its introduction to the car industry.
The cheapest LinDAR sensor right now is the Velodyne puck at $4,000, and a single vehicle would need several of them to “see” its full surrounding. The tech is also not hardy enough to withstand the time and exposure that cars endure. But Waymo claims to be on the way to successfully tackling these issues, stating in their website post that their designs have “driven down the costs dramatically” and “improved the quality and reliability of its performance.”
The jump-start advantage these designs would provide in the race to self-driving cars is exactly what Waymo, and thereby Google, sought to prevent in raising their lawsuit. What is at stake is a market that Uber’s court filings claim could be “the most lucrative business in history.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, 94 percent of fatal crashes can be attributed to human error, and autonomous vehicles have the potential to “significantly reduce highway fatalities by addressing the root cause of these tragic crashes.”
For most states though, the legality of self-driving cars is a grey zone. Current legislation stipulates a human must be “operating” the vehicle, but how much of that operation needs to be under the driver’s control and how much can be ceded to the vehicle tends to be vague. Technically, self-driving cars could be allowed on public roads as long as a human is behind the wheel.
Early last September, the House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution) Act with bipartisan support. The bill provides a basic framework for federal regulation of autonomous vehicles.
The prospect of legislation clarification, should the Senate pass its own bill, receives an unusually strong welcome from the traditionally regulation-averse tech industry. Several states have introduced at least 21 different state laws and guidelines regarding self-driving vehicles, which presents an entangled mess for companies who would like to see their cars operating in all the states, on all public roads. That is not to say strict rules are being called for here; rather, a uniform understanding is needed as autonomous vehicle companies continue to flexibly innovate.