Autonomous Vehicles

From bitter rivals to unlikely partners: The Waymo/Uber story

Explaining the history behind the duo bringing robotaxis to Phoenix.
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· 4 min read

Before their newly minted agreement to expand the use of robotaxis in Phoenix, the relationship between Uber and its self-driving, Google-owned partner Waymo had been contentious, expensive, and at times openly hostile.

In fact, the story makes the perfect script for an HBO drama, with enough content to fill an entire season: We’re talking secret documents, a church dedicated to AI, a Justice Department investigation, and a presidential pardon.

The storyline dates back to 2016, when Uber acquired Otto, a self-driving truck company founded by former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, in a deal valued at $680 million. The following year, Waymo sued Uber in San Francisco federal court, alleging Levandowski had downloaded data, including 9.7 GB of Google’s “sensitive, secret, and valuable internal Waymo information.”

According to the complaint, in December 2016, a Waymo employee was copied on an email containing “a machine drawing of what purported to be an Otto circuit board,” the type of tech that’s essential for helping vehicles sense their surroundings. That sketch “bore a striking resemblance to—and shared several unique characteristics with” Waymo’s own design, which, the suit claimed, Levandowski had downloaded before his departure.

The case prompted a related Justice Department investigation, and a trial was delayed after a judge said Uber “withheld evidence” in the form of a letter written by former security employee Richard Jacobs (known as the Jacobs letter). In that letter, Jacobs alleged teams within Uber hacked “competitor networks,” destroyed evidence related to surveillance, and impersonated drivers and riders on competitor platforms.

Waymo’s case finally went to trial in 2018, but ended abruptly after five days when the parties settled. As part of that deal, Uber agreed not to use Waymo’s hardware or software IP in its self-driving vehicles, and to pay Waymo 0.34% of Uber equity. In 2020, Uber signaled it was getting out of the autonomous-vehicle space, selling off its self-driving business to Aurora Innovations, a startup founded by a former Google engineer.

Meanwhile, Levandowski, who wasn’t named as a party to the Waymo lawsuit, but who was fired from Uber months after it was filed, founded a church dedicated to artificial intelligence, called Way of the Future, in late 2017. The US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California later sentenced Levandowski to 18 months in prison for trade secret theft, but he received one of former President Donald Trump’s last-night-in-office pardons, in which the ex-president called him “an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology.” One month later, Way of the Future shuttered for good.

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Fast forward to today: Uber wasn’t the first company Waymo partnered with for its robotaxi team. In May 2017, while Waymo’s lawsuit with Uber was pending, the New York Times reported that Waymo had signed a deal with Lyft to make driverless rides more ubiquitous. That partnership was short-lived, however; after an official announcement in 2019, the partnership quietly ended in 2020, per The Verge.

Waymo and Uber appeared to have put their differences aside by 2022, when they teamed up to tackle long-haul autonomous trucking.

The rivals-turned-BFFs are planning to offer driverless rides and food deliveries starting later this year in the Phoenix metro area, which is where, in 2018, a pedestrian was struck and killed by one of Uber’s self-driving cars, which was in autonomous mode and had a driver behind the wheel.

But while they’re rolling out the service to snowbirds and golf lovers, the eyes of the self-driving taxi universe turned to San Francisco, where AV companies are facing resistance from local officials who want to cool their expansion in the city “after repeated incidents in which cars without drivers stopped and idled in the middle of the street for no obvious reason, delaying bus riders and disrupting the work of firefighters,” NBC News reported.

This summer, the California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether to grant permission to Waymo and GM-owned Cruise to offer robotaxi services for longer hours and in more parts of the city. A hearing on their requests is expected on June 29.

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