Google vs. Uber: The fight for autonomous vehicles

Two of the most prominent companies worldwide, Google and Uber, have been competing for the project of autonomous cars. But recently, the competition has changed into a fight with the release of various insider stories about both the companies. This article covers some of the most prominent facts about the battle between Uber and Waymo, formerly Google's self-driving car project.

Uber’s Otto and Google’s Waymo origins

Waymo is an autonomous car development company emerged from Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc. The company's primary aim is to establish the self-driving vehicle's project. In 2015, Waymo's expert engineer, Anthony Levandowski, gained access to valuable information regarding the company's self-driving-car technology. The information included Waymo's lidar system. Later, in January, Levandowski quit Waymo and founded a startup company Otto, which was primarily focused on self-driving trucks. After six months, Uber acquired the company, but kept Uber independent from Otto, with Levandowski being appointed the head of Uber's self-driving vehicles.

The lawsuit

One of Uber's equipment suppliers accidentally sent an email to Waymo containing details about their company's lidar designs. On examining the designs, Waymo realized that they were very identical to the ones their company had designed, and, within a few weeks, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber. Levandowski had to step down from his post. Uber had been undergoing continuous efforts to prevent the case from going to jury trial. Uber also pointed out mandatory arbitration clause in Google's employment contract with Levandowski, to justify their efforts. Arbitration is a very common practice among companies and banks to come to an agreement by both parties to resolve disputes without much public attention or going to court.

But despite Uber's continuous efforts to prevent the case from going to jury trial, it was announced soon that the case would be going to trial. Certain initiatives by Uber, such as continuous efforts to bring the case into arbitration, suggest that the company has some serious dark secrets which they intend to hide from public view. Judge William Alsup has stated that Waymo used certain tactics to escape from Uber's arbitration obligations. However, it is somewhat prominent that decision of the court would be going against Uber. This could prove quite problematic for Uber, considering the amount of negative public attention it would be getting.

Uber's aim at cargo vehicles

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, launched a photo of their first Uber Freight vehicle on Twitter and showed off their first initiative in their company's plan to extend their automated ridesharing capabilities to logistics and freight. But further investigation suggests that these initiatives are nothing but cover-up strategies to hide their real motives, which was to start an autonomous ridesharing company eventually. In fact, Waymo has pointed out that Uber acquiring Otto for $680 million seems to be a strategy to conceal its real motives, which was to power their own self-driving car unit using Waymo's technology.

However, this accusation proved to be wrong as there is no evidence of Uber's self-driving semi-automatic vehicles anywhere till date. Also, the photo of the truck they launched does not seem to have any provisions for self-driving. As per federal records, usage of Otto's eighteen wheelers is reducing, and the company's key engineers are reassigned to their self-driving vehicle project. Other plans for projects based on pilots have been either postponed or canceled.

Software crime

Uber is also the subject of another accusation. Uber technologies have been using a program known as Greyball. It is a software tool used by Uber to identify certain details about the rider. Its primary aim was to deny service to certain riders who Uber suspects of violating its terms of service, or illegitimate requests and fraud. But it was observed that Uber used this software to evade local government authorities in the United States, Australia, South Korea, and China, who would prevent Uber from operating in areas where its service was unapproved.

In March, New York Times published an article regarding the software and revealed that greyball was being used not just to prevent forgery and fraud to safeguard the drivers, but for other nefarious purposes. As a result, Uber stopped the use of this software. The article by Times was the cause of huge negative publicity for Uber. A Northern California grand jury sent Uber a subpoena demanding information regarding the functioning of the software tool, and also the places where it has been used. It is being suggested that the system had been used for purposes which were not stated in Uber's terms of service for the users of the app; for instance, the software had been used to mine credit cards to view the details of the user. Records suggest that for more than one occasions, this was done to confirm if the rider was in the police or law enforcement.

Along with the huge amount of negative criticism and publicity Uber had been receiving, it is now also a subject of several lawsuits. Also, the existence of a criminal probe increases the hurdles in Uber's business. Only time will decide the real direction of Uber, and the future of autonomous vehicles.