Saturday, February 25, 2017

(The Big Disrupt) driverless cars: Why Google's Lawsuit against Uber is a brilliantly cynical move

In what has been a terrible February for the Uber, sometime ally and enemy Google decided to pile on to a Uber's self inflicted woe by filing a civil lawsuit against the company accusing them of stealing key aspects of their self driving car tech . 

Google's self driving spinoff Waymaccuses former employee Anthony Lewandowski of stealing 14,000 files on its LiDAR designs which allows its cars to use lasers to navigate the physical world and using the stolen files to form a startup called Otto which was acquired by Uber last August . 

The civil lawsuit marks a new low in Google's relationship with Uber which has  been strained since reports leaked two years ago that Google was planning to launch its own rideshare service with a driverless fleet, a move that would see Google compete with Uber directly.  

Since then, Uber have been very proactive about developing its own fleet of driverless cars which would significantly cut down their costs which have so far seen the company burn through cash at an unprecedented rate. Uber have made a lot of progress in the last two years largely through famously raiding Carnegie Mellon's much respected robotics department for talent, securing key partnerships  with automakers such as  Toyota who outstrip Google in driverless car patents and smart acquisitions but they still lag behind Google who have been pioneers in the space, particularly LiDAR technology.    

One of the major costs hampering the development of driverless cars for the mass market is the prohibitive cost of LiDAR technology which encouraged Google to develop its own LiDAR to lower costs which have declined steeply since google forked out a whopping $75,000 per unit 8 years ago. Google itself has managed to cut Lidar costs by a whopping 90% but leading Lidar maker Velodyne plans to cut the price of lidar sensors even further to a mere $50 per sensor. What this all means is with cheaper lidar sensors, Google can provide a cheaper driverless car to mass market. 

This is bad news for Uber and other players in the race to bring driverless cars to market as while the price for lidar sensors have plunged, Google is the only player to come up with it's own in house solution which gives them a major competitive advantage. The only reason Uber brought Otto just three months after it was formed was to develop its own in house solution and hire Lewandowski to lead the effort but just six months later, Uber are almost certainly going to pay dearly for their $680 million acquisition regardless of what happens going forward. 

In sum, Google and Uber have been on a collision course two years and with Waymo willing to drag Uber's name through the mud in what may be one of the nastiest trade secret battles ever, expect more of the same as the two former allies lock horns.  

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