An email fail made Google suspect Uber was copying its self-driving car technology


A Google employee wasn't supposed to receive an email titled "OTTO FILES."

Yet, the accidental cc-ing of a competitor's technology designs revealed something potentially much worse: the plans looked eerily familiar.

On Thursday, Google's self-driving car spin-out, Waymo, sued Otto and its parent company Uber over alleged theft of intellectual property and patent violations.

Waymo claims that a former employee downloaded more than 14,000 files and took them to start his own company. That startup, Otto, was acquired by Uber only a few months after its official launch for $680 million.

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In its lawsuit, Waymo claims that it had already started looking into whether its intellectual property was stolen in the summer of 2016. "The sudden resignations from Waymo, Otto's quick public launch with Mr. Lewandowski at the helm, and Uber's near-immediate acquisition of Otto for more than half a billion dollars all caused Waymo grave concern regarding the possible misuse of its intellectual property," the company wrote in the suit.

Six months later, by chance, the "evidence" landed in a Waymo employee's inbox.

One of Waymo's suppliers had accidentally included the employee on an email chain meant for members of the vendor's Uber team, the complaint states. Attached in the "OTTO FILES" email was the drawing for a circuit board used in self-driving car "Lidar" sensors that "bore a striking resemblance to" the one Waymo had been confidentially building.

That accidental email fail nearly confirmed Waymo's suspicions. After the company filed a public records request to see what Uber had told Nevada about its self-driving systems, Waymo was convinced. Uber had told Nevada regulators that its cars relied on custom-built Lidar sensors, the suit says.

"Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company," Waymo wrote in a blog post announcing the lawsuit.

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The sculpture of a Google Inc.'s Android mobile operating system mascot sits inside the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., plans on tapping into existing fiber networks in San Francisco to deliver ultra-fast internet access across the city. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: A view of the Head Office of Google on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Breakout area at the Head Office of Google on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: A view of the Head Office of Google on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
A Google Inc. employee sits in a massage chair as she works on an Apple Inc. laptop computer with a colleague inside the company's offices in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. Google, based in Mountain View, California, is seeking to revive Motorola Mobility's smartphone business, recently announcing a new flagship Moto X smartphone with customizable colors that will be assembled in the U.S. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Reception area of Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
An employee walks in a hallway at Google Canada's engineering headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. The 185,000-square-foot facility currently houses over 350 employees from Google's Canadian development team. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: A view of the Head Office of Google on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
A cyclist rides past Google Inc. signage near the entrance to the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., plans on tapping into existing fiber networks in San Francisco to deliver ultra-fast internet access across the city. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A cyclist rides past Google Inc. offices inside the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., plans on tapping into existing fiber networks in San Francisco to deliver ultra-fast internet access across the city. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A cyclist rides past Google Inc. offices inside the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., plans on tapping into existing fiber networks in San Francisco to deliver ultra-fast internet access across the city. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google Inc. signage is displayed on an office building inside the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., plans on tapping into existing fiber networks in San Francisco to deliver ultra-fast internet access across the city. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Employees play pool in the recreation area at Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
An employee checks her mobile device in the lobby of Google Canada's engineering headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. The 185,000-square-foot facility currently houses over 350 employees from Google's Canadian development team. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An employee walks in a hallway at Google Canada's engineering headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. The 185,000-square-foot facility currently houses over 350 employees from Google's Canadian development team. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Breakout areas are scattered across each floor of the seven floor building of Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Cool cafeteria at Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
An employee walks on a treadmill in the fitness center at Google Canada's engineering headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. The 185,000-square-foot facility currently houses over 350 employees from Google's Canadian development team. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Breakout areas are scattered across each floor of the seven floor building of Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
GURGAON, INDIA - MARCH 19: Breakout areas are scattered across each floor of the seven floor building of Google Head Office on March 19, 2015 in Gurgaon, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 02: The new Google logo is displayed on a sign outside of the Google headquarters on September 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. Google has made the most dramatic change to their logo since 1999 and have replaced their signature serif font with a new typeface called Product Sans. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Google employee Andrea Janus demonstrates the use of the mini-putt green on the balcony at the new Google office in Toronto, November 13, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)
Google Inc. logos sit on a wall inside the pantry at the company's offices in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. Google, based in Mountain View, California, is seeking to revive Motorola Mobility's smartphone business, recently announcing a new flagship Moto X smartphone with customizable colors that will be assembled in the U.S. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Google Inc. employee carries an Apple Inc. laptop computer as he walks past logos inside the company's offices in Berlin, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. Google, based in Mountain View, California, is seeking to revive Motorola Mobility's smartphone business, recently announcing a new flagship Moto X smartphone with customizable colors that will be assembled in the U.S. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Indian visitors sit inside a display at the 'Google House' event showcasing the company's latest product innovations for India in Bangalore on August 18, 2015. Google says its products are targeted towards the growing number of internet and smartphone users in the country. AFP PHOTO / Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian visitor sits inside a display at the 'Google House' event showcasing the company's latest product innovations for India in Bangalore on August 18, 2015. Google says its products are targeted towards the growing number of internet and smartphone users in the country. AFP PHOTO / Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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