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Uber dodges a bullet in latest ruling from self-driving car lawsuit — for now

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FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, an Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. In the first major congressional attempt to address the advent of self-driving cars, two key senators said Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, theyíre launching a bipartisan effort to help to speed up the deployment of the vehicles on the nationís roads. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

A federal judge has rejected Waymo’s request to prevent Uber from using allegedly stolen self-driving technology, which is sure to come as a relief to the embattled ride-hailing company. Under the ruling, Uber can continue to operate its fleet of autonomous cars on public roads in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California, but it still faces a criminal case ahead about allegations that it stole Google’s self-driving secrets.

In rejecting Waymo’s main request, Judge William Alsup did grant the Google spinoff a partial injunction against Uber as part of its ongoing lawsuit. The court has now officially barred Anthony Levandowski, who recently recused himself from Uber’s self-driving program, from working on the LIDAR program. It has also ordered the return of all stolen documents to Waymo. As such, the court has granted Waymo “further expedited discovery of aid of possible further provisional relief.”

Alsup also called Waymo’s claim of patent infringement “meritless,” and noted, with regard to trade secrets, that Waymo has “overreached, in attempting to claim ownership over general principles and approaches in the field.”

The ruling is ambiguous enough where both sides can claim some kind of victory. Levandowski, who wasn’t named in the lawsuit but was the focal point throughout the hearings, is officially sidelined from Uber’s autonomous research efforts. Levandowski asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid incrimination during the preliminary hearings, but Judge Alsup urged Uber to “to do whatever it can to ensure that its employees return 14,000-plus pilfered files to their rightful owner.”

“If Uber were to threaten Levandowski with termination for noncompliance, that threat would be backed up by only Uber’s power as a private employer, and Levandowski would remain free to forfeit his private employment to preserve his Fifth Amendment privilege,” Alsup wrote.

By granting Waymo permission to seek the return of its stolen documents, the judge also agreed with the Alphabet company “that at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber’s own LIDAR development efforts.” Even so, he did not see enough evidence to completely block Uber from operating its LIDAR-equipped vehicles in the public.

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

“Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions,” a spokesperson for Waymo said. “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. The court has also granted Waymo expedited discovery and we will use this to further protect our work and hold Uber fully responsible for its misconduct.”

A spokesperson for Uber said, “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. We look forward to moving toward trial and continuing to demonstrate that our technology has been built independently from the ground up.”

The latest twist in this hotly watched legal drama came as Waymo announced its plan to team up with Lyft, Uber’s arch rival in the ride-hailing business, to allow customers to summon self-driving cars at some point in the future. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said his company needs to move fast on autonomous cars or face an “existential threat” from rivals like Google. With this ruling, Uber and Kalanick have dodged its first big existential threat.

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