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US judge demands Uber return downloaded documents to Waymo

[SAN FRANCISCO] A US judge ordered Uber Technologies Inc to promptly return any files that had been downloaded and taken from Alphabet Inc's Waymo self-driving car unit but said the ride-services company could continue work on its autonomous car technology.

The latest court ruling in a high-profile trade secrets case from US District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, made public on Monday, granted a partial injunction against Uber, which Waymo has accused of using stolen information to accelerate the building of its autonomous cars.

Judge Alsup said in the ruling that Uber "likely knew" or should have known that the former Waymo engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who now works at Uber, took Waymo materials.

The case hinges on more than 14,000 confidential files that Waymo alleges Levandowski stole before he left the company. Waymo claims the information made its way into Uber's Lidar system, a sensor that uses light pulses to recognize objects on or near the road.

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Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016 to start Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber bought for US$680 million in August.

"The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo's intellectual property," Judge Alsup wrote.

Judge Alsup ordered Uber to prevent Levandowski from using the downloaded materials and return them to Waymo by May 31, and ordered Levandowski to be removed from any Lidar work at Uber.

Levandowski had already stepped aside from those responsibilities for the duration of the court case.

Waymo said on Monday it welcomed the ruling. "Competition should be fueled by innovation in the labs and on the roads, not through unlawful actions," spokesman Johnny Luu said.

However, the judge said few of Waymo's alleged trade secrets have been traced to Uber's self-driving car technology, and that Waymo's patent claims against Uber have proved "meritless". The ruling did not go as far as shutting down Uber's self-driving car lab.

"We are pleased with the court's ruling that Uber can continue building and utilising all of its self-driving technology, including our innovation around Lidar," Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler said.

The partial injunction was part of a broader ruling Judge Alsup had handed down on Thursday, but was temporarily filed under seal.

Also on Thursday, Judge Alsup referred the case to the US Department of Justice for investigation of possible trade secret theft, and ruled against Uber's request for private arbitration that would have kept much of the case out of the public eye.