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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