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Uber sued by Google’s parent company Alphabet for allegedly stealing self-driving tech secrets

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is suing Uber for allegedly stealing trade secrets from its self-driving car programme.

The search giant claims that one of the top engineers in its self-driving car program decamped with thousands of confidential files, including designs, in order to help him start the self-driving truck company Otto. He then proceeded to quickly sell this company to Uber which could then take advantage of Otto’s technology. Uber has denied any of these claims.

The self-driving car unit Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, has filed a lawsuit, jolting the fast-growing and highly competitive autonomous vehicle industry.

The confrontation was a long time in the making: the complex relationship between the companies was tense from the start, according to people familiar with the situation, and soured further as they increasingly competed with each other.

Bill Maris and David Krane of Google Ventures (GV), the firm’s venture capital arm, actually provided substantial funding to Uber in its early drive to raise capital in 2013. Despite pushback from the rest of Google, which already had an investment in competitor Sidecar, Maris and Krane prevailed and the deal is now regarded as GV’s greatest success. On paper, the firm’s initial 2013 investment of $258m gained about 14 times its value over the next three years to more than $3.5bn.

Now, if the Waymo suit damages Uber, GV’s investment in the ride-hailing company stands to go down as a Silicon Valley rarity: a large funding deal undermined by the firm’s own investors.

“Whatever Waymo gains, Google Ventures loses,” said Stephen Diamond, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University.

The lawsuit is just one in a series of recent public setbacks for Uber, including allegations of sexual harassment that prompted an internal investigation, a video of Chief Executive Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver that led him to make a public apology and Uber’s admission on Friday that it used a secret tracking tool to avoid authorities.

“We have reviewed Waymo’s claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court,” Uber said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. “In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

A spokeswoman for GV declined to comment.

Uber’s aggressive culture was the subject of many conversations at Google Ventures, a source close to the transaction said. Hoping to influence the startup, the venture firm at first encouraged a flow of talent from Google to Uber.

Yet that, too, ultimately created problems. Anthony Levandowski, a key engineering manager at the self-driving car unit, which was later renamed Waymo, began to talk openly about leaving the company as the autonomous vehicle field blossomed, according to Alphabet’s lawsuit.

In January 2016, Levandowski and other colleagues quit Alphabet to form the self-driving truck start-up Otto, which Uber acquired later that year for $680m. Alphabet claims in its lawsuit that Levandowski had been in touch with Uber even before he left Alphabet.

In the lawsuit, Alphabet alleges Levandowski downloaded 14,000 proprietary design documents and used them to create Otto’s – and later Uber’s – version of a key autonomous vehicle technology called Lidar, which uses light pulses reflected off objects to gauge their position.

Uber and Levandowski deny the allegations.

In December, Uber was forced to withdraw its self-driving cars from California roads after state regulators moved to revoke their registrations. However, it seems almost nothing can halt Uber’s aggressive expansion around the world. An NHS trust in the UK has just struck a deal with social care company Cera, which may use Uber taxis to transfer non-emergency patients to and from hospital.

The deal with Barts Health NHS Trust in London will see patients able to use Uber for journeys including hospital appointments and generally getting out-and-about when they might otherwise be housebound or reliant on family and friends, Cera said.

The firm will use the UberAssist disabled access cars and the UberWav service for wheelchair users.

It will also be available to carers, using the app alongside traditional forms of transport to determine the most efficient means for moving people, the firm said.

NHS patients with illnesses ranging from cancer to dementia will be looked after by Cera carers under the new London scheme, which uses a smartphone app to coordinate care, book drivers and keep relatives informed of their care.

Dr Ben Maruthappu, Cera’s co-founder and president, said the move would “radically integrate care and transport through technology”, adding, “Older people and those with disabilities will now have access to the highest quality drivers, while carers will be able to efficiently travel to ensure they can provide services in the right place at the right time.”

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