An Uber vehicle mapping the streets and topography of Pittsburgh last year in preparation for the use of driverless cars. Credit Jeff Swensen for The New York Times. Read More

SAN FRANCISCO — Waymo, the self-driving car business spun out of Google’s parent company, claimed in a federal lawsuit on Thursday that Uber was using intellectual property stolen by one of Google’s former project leaders.

In a federal court filing in San Francisco, Waymo said Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber’s autonomous car division, downloaded 14,000 files from Google a month before leaving to start his own self-driving car company, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August for $680 million, about seven months after Mr. Levandowski left Google.

“Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology,” the company said in the filing. “Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense.”

Uber did not respond to requests for comment.

In its filing, Waymo said it was inadvertently copied on an email from one of its suppliers with drawings of Uber’s circuit board design for its lidar technology, short for light detection and ranging, ” that are laser-based sensors used in self-driving cars. Waymo said Uber’s design bore “a striking resemblance” to its proprietary and highly secret design and infringed on Waymo’s patents.
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Waymo also said that a number of Google employees, who subsequently left to join Mr. Levandowski at Google, downloaded additional trade secrets before departing. These included supplier lists, manufacturing details and technical information, Waymo said.
The suit accuses Uber of stealing trade secrets, infringing on patents and competing unfairly in an effort to catch up on autonomous vehicle technology.

Otto was the brainchild of a handful of former Google employees who pioneered autonomous vehicle research at the search giant. Mr. Levandowski, who had been at Google nine years, led that effort.

He is a prominent figure in the world of self-driving vehicles, having worked on the technology for more than a decade and achieving some degree of renown as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, when he designed a self-driving motorcycle that was entered in the Pentagon’s first contest for autonomous vehicles. Later, when Google began working on self-driving cars, it acquired Mr. Levandowski’s start-up, 510 Systems.

Mr. Levandowski left Google in early 2016 to found Otto with Lior Ron, who also was experienced in autonomous vehicle research and digital mapping. Waymo noted in its suit that the sale to Uber closed shortly after Mr. Levandowski received his final “multimillion dollar” compensation payment from Google.

Companies in Silicon Valley and Detroit are betting big on self-driving car technology. And the intense interest has spawned a string of expensive investments and lawsuits.

Last year, General Motors paid more than $1 billion for Cruise Automation, an autonomous vehicle technology start-up, and Ford recently announced plans to invest $1 billion over five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence start-up formed in December.

Document: Waymo’s Complaint Against Uber

In January, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Sterling Anderson, a former director of the company’s Autopilot program, saying that he broke his employment contract by trying to recruit Tesla employees to join a new self-driving car company. Tesla’s suit, filed against Mr. Anderson and his partner Chris Urmson, a former Google employee, also claims that Mr. Anderson took proprietary information and tried to cover his tracks by destroying information.

In December, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said that its seven-year-old autonomous vehicle project was spinning off from its research lab X and would operate as a stand-alone company called Waymo.

Alphabet said its decision to spin out Waymo was a signal that the company thought its self-driving technology had advanced beyond research project status and was ready for commercialization. Waymo executives have said it is open to using the technology in many ways, including a ride-hailing service to compete with Uber.


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For Uber, Otto represents a significant bet on the future of transportation. Mr. Levandowski was named vice president of Uber’s self-driving technology, and he reports directly to Travis Kalanick, the company’s chief executive. Mr. Levandowski leads Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, the epicenter of the company’s testing and self-driving efforts.

Uber has said it could be years before self-driving vehicles enter wide mainstream use. But the company has already deployed early tests in Pittsburgh and Tempe, Ariz., where the public can travel in prototype vehicles. In Fort Collins, Colo., Otto recently completed its first self-driving truck delivery, a 120-mile beer delivery for Budweiser.

Uber has also struck a deal with Volvo to jointly develop a self-driving vehicle, the XC-90; early versions of it have been released in some cities.