Waymo vs Uber: Was it worth all that attention?
As the douche settles after the Waymo vs Uber case, let’s take a moment to ask: What was that all about?
This was a civil case between two major name-brand Silicon Valley corporations – Uber and Google –and on that basis alone there’s an argument to be made that it was a business story of some importance, fit for the business section. Add in the spy-novel intrigue of an alleged data-theft orchestration by Uber’s leadership, and you’ve got the makings of a sizzling headline.
But this thing went on for almost a year, and every pretrial hearing drew a crowd of journalists and a tranche of overlapping coverage. Were the stakes really high enough to justify all that attention?
If the case had continued to its end, and the jury had come to a verdict, what impact would that have had? What, if any, were the “larger implications” beyond the damages assessed and the recalibration of the timeline for either company to deliver self-driving cars to the market at a significant scale, a possible reversal in the order of which company held a stronger position in the race to bring them to market first?
From where I’m sitting the sum of those wider implications was negligible. Even if autonomous vehicles truly are an immanent technology (still a matter for debate) and will spark a restructuring of the world’s transportation systems and by extension the economy as a whole, this case would have contributed almost nothing to all that. Self-driving cars have sex appeal AND induce a lot of anxiety, and as such are journalistic gold. But they were only the proximate cause of this lawsuit. The case centered on the more esoteric subject of that ambiguous category of intellectual property known as trade secrets. Legally, they are essentially defined as stuff that is valuable because your competitors don’t know it, and wouldn’t be likely to discover it on their own.
One could speculate that if Google had won outright, it could have had a chilling effect on “innovation,” because going forward companies would seek to avoid this sort of litigation and take extreme care that newly hired employees didn’t have any other company’s trade secrets knocking about their heads, or weren’t working on projects where those trade secrets were of value. But why? Although the details of the trade secrets at issue were withheld from the public (since they’d lose their value otherwise, by definition) there was nothing in the public arguments made that suggested Google had some novel claim which would carry the established legal protection of trade secrets into new territory. As far as we can tell, the only reason for such a “chilling effect” would have been Google’s demonstrated willingness to fight. There is nothing to suggest this case would have had a meaningful impact on the existing body of law that protects trade secrets.
Perhaps a broader implication has to do with the corporate culture in Silicon Valley, which tends to frown upon the “poaching” of key personnel among competitors. But this was best established in a class action case years ago, a case which got a fraction of the Waymo v. Uber press coverage.
Which leads me to think that the reason for all this press coverage was rubbernecking, the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Uber’s executive chicanery and its resulting fallout, first-hand, and to take part in the process of laying one more piece of straw across the back of the camel of it’s IPO potential.
But just as this case was rolling along to its surprise ending a far more consequential case was being decided just a few floors below. In a first of its kind ruling, Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley found that GrubHub delivery drivers were properly classified as independent contractors. That is something that could have an immediate (positive) impact on Uber’s (and Lyft’s, et al) eventual share price, assuming they go public before autonomous vehicles replace their drivers en masse.