The judge overseeing a court case levied against Uber by Waymo over the alleged theft of trade secrets has recommended that federal prosecutors also investigate the matter.
Google spin-off Waymo has accused Uber of accessing and utilizing the firm's self-driving technology for its own ends. Waymo claims in the lawsuit, issued in February, that a former employee now working under Uber stole roughly 14,000 confidential files when he moved companies.
Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo executive, allegedly downloaded the documents to kick-start his own business, 280 Systems, which later became Otto. Uber then acquired his company for $680 million, installing Levandowski as the head of the self-driving research arm.
The stolen information reportedly includes the details of Waymo's proprietary LiDAR sensor and radar system, as well as maps of circuit boards. Waymo alleges that these trade secrets are benefiting Uber's autonomous vehicle development and the firm has requested damages as well as a legal order that would prevent Uber using this information for their own gain.
Uber has denied using Waymo technology, but the situation has become more complicated as Levandowski has invoked his rights under the fifth amendment, which prevents prosecutors from forcing him into self-incrimination.
As a result, the engineer has refused to answer questions related to the alleged theft or hand over his personal computer.
Without such potential evidence at hand, Waymo has been left in a difficult position. Uber attempted to move the case to arbitration to avoid a court hearing, but the proposal has been rejected.
Should the allegations be proven true, the loss of Levandowski's experience and expertise at Uber would deal a harsh blow to the ride-hailing service.
The engineer has already stepped aside from his role as the head of the self-driving car project while the legal battle mounts, and instead, will shift from LiDAR development to safety and security.
Alsup said that despite Levandowski's refusal to talk, the evidence stacked against him related to the alleged theft is solid.
"I've never seen a record this strong in 42 years," Alsup said.
According to The Guardian, Judge William Alsup has referred the case to the US Attorney's Office, where officials will decide whether criminal proceedings against Levandowski are appropriate, and if so, on what charges.
Alsup wrote in his recommendation that he "takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up to the United States Attorney."
"This was a desperate bid by Uber to avoid the court's jurisdiction," a Waymo spokesperson said. "We welcome the court's decision today, and we look forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct."
Uber declined to comment.
See also: Uber rejects claims iPhone app tracked users after being deleted
Despite the legal situation, Waymo is steaming ahead with self-driving car tests in Phoenix, Ariz. Residents have now been offered the opportunity to use the self-driving fleet in their daily lives, on condition they provide the firm with feedback.
Having clocked up over 2.5 million miles on public roads, Waymo plans to use the pilot program to gather more extensive data on where potential users want to ride, how users find communicating with the self-driving car interface, and what types of in-vehicle information and controls users want to see.
In contrast, Uber suspended autonomous vehicle tests in March following a crash in Tempe, Ariz.