Uber sidestepped a full shutdown of its self-driving car efforts on Monday when a federal judge stopped short of issuing a temporary injunction against the ride-hailing company’s autonomous vehicle program.
But the court mandated that Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer leading Uber’s self-driving car program, must be restricted from working on a critical component of autonomous vehicle technology throughout the duration of the litigation, a setback that could hamper the company’s development efforts.
The decision came in a case that has underlined the increasingly bitter fight between Uber and Waymo, the self-driving car business that operates under Google’s parent company. Both companies have been striving to race ahead of each other in autonomous vehicles, which many consider to be the future of transportation. The outcome could affect who wins or loses in the technology, which has also drawn in other tech companies, automakers and start-ups.
The case began in February, when Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, accusing it of stealing trade secrets to develop self-driving cars. Waymo said the thief was Mr. Levandowski, a onetime star engineer at Google and a guru of autonomous vehicle technology, who joined Uber last year. Waymo asked the court to issue a temporary injunction that could have halted Uber’s self-driving program.
Over the past few months, both sides have traded barbs with one another and attempted various legal tactics to gain the upper hand. Waymo accused Mr. Levandowski of downloading thousands of documents and using the findings at Uber. Mr. Levandowski decided to plead the Fifth Amendment in the case, reserving the right against self-incrimination.
In his ruling on Monday, Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco, said, “Waymo L.L.C. has shown compelling evidence that its former star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 confidential files from Waymo immediately before leaving his employment there.”
He added, “Significantly, the evidence indicates that, during the acquisition, Uber likely knew or at least should have known that Levandowski had taken and retained possession of Waymo’s confidential files.”
Judge Alsup directed Uber to produce a timeline of the events leading up to Mr. Levandowski’s hiring, including all oral and written discussions between the two parties about a key self-driving technology called LiDar — short for light detection and ranging — which Mr. Levandowski has been accused of stealing. The judge also ordered Uber to do what it could to ensure the return of the files to Waymo, including the possibility of terminating Mr. Levandowski’s employment at Uber.
“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions,” Johnny Luu, a Waymo spokesman, said in a statement. “We welcome the order to prohibit Uber’s use of stolen documents containing trade secrets developed by Waymo through years of research, and to formally bar Mr. Levandowski from working on the technology.”
Despite the judge’s ruling on Mr. Levandowski, Uber also had cause for celebration as its self-driving research program was not required to be put on hold, a serious blow that could have put the company behind others in the race to bring autonomous vehicles to market.
“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that Uber can continue building and utilizing all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around LiDar,” Niki Christoff, an Uber spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Judge Alsup’s ruling follows his decision on Thursday to refuse Uber’s request to send the case to arbitration. The case will now move to a public trial. Judge Alsup had also referred the case to the United States attorney’s office for possible theft of trade secrets, raising the possibility of criminal charges for those involved if the Department of Justice decides to take up the case.
The ruling compounds a troubled few months for Uber, which is also grappling with allegations that its workplace is ridden with sexual harassment. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, is also under scrutiny over his leadership. And the company is facing a Justice Department inquiry into “Greyball,” a tool that Uber used to deceive authorities worldwide.
Driverless cars have become increasingly contentious among tech titans. For years, Google had an advantage as an early entrant into autonomous vehicle research. The company has made strides in improving the cars’ performance through rigorous road testing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But Google has faced increasing competition. Apple has ramped up autonomous research efforts, while Uber has poured millions of dollars into bringing self-driving cars to the mainstream as quickly as possible. Automakers including General Motors and Ford have also invested in artificial intelligence start-ups like Cruise Automation and Argo AI in hopes of building the software that will run self-driving cars in the future.
Uber has spent the past few weeks working to minimize the impact of a ruling from Judge Alsup against Mr. Levandowski. In a memo to his staff in April, Mr. Levandowski said he was stepping back from making decisions on LiDar technology through the duration of the company’s legal proceedings.
The ruling comes a day after Waymo confirmed it had struck a deal with Lyft, the ride-hailing start-up and a rival of Uber’s, to bring autonomous vehicles to consumers using Lyft’s network. Waymo’s research and technology paired with Lyft’s customer base could pose a significant threat to Uber, which has acknowledged it is behind Waymo in self-driving research.