Uber v Google: Self-drive tech clash heads to court

A trial pitting two of the biggest players in self-drive technology against each other has begun in San Francisco.

Ride-sharing firm Uber is being sued by Waymo, the self-driving company spun out of Google.

Uber is accused of stealing and using trade secrets relating to Lidar (light detection and ranging) – one of the technologies that enables an autonomous car to understand what is happening around it.

Waymo is making its case first, and then it will be up to Uber to defend itself.

Emails already shown in court detailed Uber’s ex-chief executive Travis Kalanick demanding “pounds of flesh” from Waymo, while others are said to involve him saying he wanted to “find the cheat codes”.

Waymo’s legal team has compared Mr Kalanick to Rosie Ruiz, a runner who cheated in the 1980 New York Marathon by taking the subway.

Uber will likely begin its defence next week. It is expected the company will not dispute document theft, but instead attempt to convince the jury it did not use the information in its self-drive experiments.

While bitter and expensive legal disputes between tech companies are common, it’s rare for these tussles to be played out in public.

The case is expected to last about three weeks.

At stake is a potential damages payout of hundreds of millions of dollars. Or, perhaps worse, an injunction to halt, or at least hinder, Uber’s self-driving research. This would be a big blow to the company, which once said leading the way in self-driving tech was critical to its survival.

What is the accusation?

The row centres around a man named Anthony Levandowski, a former Google employee considered a leading mind in autonomous research.

He worked on Google’s self-driving programme before leaving in January 2016. It is alleged that when he left, he took with him more than 14,000 confidential documents, which were blueprints and other technical information about Lidar.

He then founded Otto, an autonomous trucking company, which after less than a year was acquired by Uber for $680m (£481m). It formed the basis of Uber’s self-driving division, and Mr Levandowski was at the helm.

Waymo alleges this whole process was an elaborate charade, and that Uber, specifically then-chief executive Travis Kalanick, was in talks with Mr Levandowski before he left Google.

Otto was merely a front for Uber’s plan to pinch their technology, Waymo claims.

Uber denies this version of events, though not entirely. It’s not disputing the documents were taken, but insists it didn’t gain anything whatsoever from them.

The crucial point Waymo will need to prove is that not only did Uber have the documents, but that it used them to gain an advantage of some kind.

What are the trade secrets?

In the original filing, Waymo cited 121 secrets and patents Uber was said to have stolen. That number has since been reduced to eight.

The significance of this reduction depends on which company’s spin you want to follow. In background briefings, Uber said the fact so many of the claims were dropped from the case proved they were flimsy.

Waymo said it was forced to select a handful of the most significant claims in order to have a trial that didn’t last months, or even years.

Judge William Alsup’s comments, it has to be said, seem more closely aligned with Uber’s interpretation.

He described at least one of the dismissed “secrets” as “Optics 101” – meaning, the very basics of the technology, not the kind of insight that would justify calling it a secret.

Either way, the jury will be asked to rule individually on the eight secrets. Discussions about the specifics will be off limits to press, but the jury will see each secret in detail in order to make its decision.

Part of that process will be determining whether the information could be considered a secret in the first place.

Key to Waymo’s strategy will be convincing the jury that secrets can cover failure as much as success.

If Waymo spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours discovering that something didn’t work, is Uber capitalising on that trade secret by saving itself the effort?

Who will appear in court?

While Mr Levandowski is on the witness list, don’t expect much if he appears.

Throughout this case, he has “pleaded the Fifth” – the protection afforded by the American constitution to not say anything that could incriminate oneself. Because of this, Uber has since fired him.

Should Waymo call Mr Levandowski to the stand, we can assume it’s theatre – the man at the centre of the row refusing to speak a peep is not a great look for Uber.

We expect, within the first few days, to hear from Mr Kalanick. The controversial co-founder of Uber was forced to step down as chief executive last year following a string of scandals of which this case is but one.

We are also likely to see Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founders.

Less glamorous but perhaps more useful will be the numerous Uber engineers who will be rigorously questioned about how they were directed by Mr Levandowski, and whether those stolen documents and secrets ever surfaced in Uber’s work.

Overseeing the proceedings is Judge Alsup, a favourite among journalists for his highly-quotable courtroom quips, but not a person either legal team will be looking forward to dealing with.

Judge Alsup is a force to be reckoned with: he famously learned some coding skills in order to have a better grasp on a different trial between Google and database specialist Oracle.

What are the strategies and risks?

Jury trials bring about a whole new psychology to how lawyers must approach a case. Attacks and rebuttals must be thorough but not overwhelming; simplified but not patronising.

Uber knows it could face a jury which, being from San Francisco, may already hold a negative view of the company.

During the selection process, Uber asked potential jurors if they were, had been, or just knew a taxi driver – such is the animosity over Uber’s impact on traditional business. It also asked if anyone had deleted Uber’s app in protest at various ethical decisions the company has made in recent times.

Uber’s baggage in front of the five man, five woman jury can’t be understated: Mr Kalanick has a reputation as a hard, cut-throat operator – and that’s just to his friends.

Given a past of covering up a security breach, surveilling journalists, and using secret software to evade government officials, it will hardly be a huge leap for the jury to believe Mr Kalanick wasn’t above tapping up a rival’s star employee.

Privately, Uber accuses Waymo of wanting to dumb down the jury’s technical expertise in the hope of getting jurors who know less about sophisticated technology. Waymo strongly denies this, and if it is to win it will need to do a lot more than paint Uber as some kind of tech bogeyman.

We can expect Judge Alsup to have little patience for anything that strays far from the intricate facts of the trade secrets in question.

Ultimately, it’s up to Waymo to draw a clear line, from stolen documents, to Uber’s self-driving work.

What are the potential outcomes?

Let’s consider the jury decides that Uber stole and used all the trade secrets of which it’s accused. That could mean it would have to pay more than $1bn in damages.

Calculating such an amount could be difficult, though. It’s hard to measure the real cost to Waymo given the technology is yet to be commercialised, at least in the ways these companies envision.

More straightforward would be an injunction that would stop Uber’s self-driving programme altogether.

That would be an extreme outcome – it’s more likely that any injunction would just apply to whichever trade secrets the jury decides were infringed.

As I see it, there is a scenario would allow both companies to claim a moral victory, even if, technically, the decision goes Waymo’s way.

If a jury decides Uber did steal and use trade secrets and an injunction is handed down, Uber will immediately brush it off by claiming it doesn’t use the secrets anyway.

Indeed, the company has already outsourced its Lidar needs to San Jose-based Velodyne. At most, an injunction might impact Uber’s plans to make the technology in-house.

Another outcome, of course, is that Waymo fails to convince the jury that any trade secrets were stolen, and that’s the end of that.

What is the bigger picture?

This case is being so keenly watched because it already represents an enormous argument in Silicon Valley, one about the cross-pollination of ideas and expertise.

When extraordinary brains do incredible work at powerful companies, what right do they have to take those ideas with them?

Uber unquestionably benefitted from Mr Levandowski’s expertise. But is that because of trade secrets, or simply because of who he is?

The jury won’t be asked that question, but the outcome of this case will be seen by many as providing an answer.

source: BBC

Dow Jones stock index falls by 500 points

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen by 500 points in a day of volatile trading that has rattled global markets.

The leading US stock market is down 1.99% or 427.58 points to 25,012.47.

It was closely followed by the wider S&P 500 stock index and the technology-heavy Nasdaq.

The falls extend losses on Friday, when strong wage growth data raised the prospect of accelerated interest rate rises.

London’s main share index, the FTSE 100, closed down 1.46% while earlier, the biggest markets in Asia fell between 1% and 2.5%.

The decline followed months of market increases, which had fuelled concerns that share prices were over valued.

David Madden, market analyst at CMC Markets, said: “Equity traders were enjoying a bullish run recently, and the jolt from the major decline in the US last Friday has triggered a worldwide round of profit taking.”

US shares suffer sharpest drop since 2016

The Dow Jones rose more than 25% in 2017 – a year which was also unusual for its lack of sharp moves.

“There is going to be more volatility this year, ” Andrew Wilson chief executive of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, told the BBC.

“We are in a cycle where central banks are reducing the amount of bonds they are buying and some central banks putting up interest rates,” he said.

On Friday there was a hefty 4% loss for shares in Apple, which had been one of the markets’ star performers in recent years.

source: BBC

Are we stuck with plastic drinking straws?

One of the world’s leading makers of single-use plastic drinking straws has told Radio 5 Live that the development of more environmentally friendly alternatives is “stuck”.

John Sidanta, chief executive of Primaplast, said he was aware of rising global concern over levels of plastic pollution in oceans and landfills.

But he said affordable alternatives had yet to be developed.

At the moment, greener straws cost a hundred times more, he said.

Primaplast manufactures up to 600 million polypropylene plastic straws a month from its base in Tangerang, Indonesia, for markets in Europe and Japan, where they are sold alongside cartons of juice, milkshakes and yoghurt drinks.

Despite a useful life of just minutes, traditional plastic straws cannot degrade once disposed of and Mr Sidanta acknowledges their days are probably numbered.

Some firms are already beginning to curb their use.

The pub chain JD Wetherspoon and Pizza Express have announced plans to phase them out completely, while other firms, such as All Bar One, say they plan to substantially reduce the availability of plastic straws in their branches.

Cornwall may become the first county to ban them from bars and restaurants after a campaign by the group Final Straw Cornwall.

The market for multi-use designer straws made of bamboo, metal or glass, that can retail for several pounds each is growing.

But paper alternatives have had a mixed response as they tend to go soggy easily, making them harder to use – particularly for children.

Straws can also be made from potato or corn paste, but Mr Sidarta said it has been expensive to develop products from those materials.

“To be as close as possible to plastic materials, this is not an easy job.”

Mr Sidarta points that carton drinks can last up to 18 months, but straws made from alternative materials that could last that long would cost Primaplast up to a hundred times more to manufacture.

Lightweight

Mr Sidanta adds that polypropylene straws are in fact “definitely recyclable”, and in Japan are often reused in other forms of packaging, plastic tiles and even for types of stationary.

In other markets this often isn’t done as the lightweight nature of these straws mean that, like banknotes, a huge volume is needed before recycling becomes cost effective.

He believes governments worldwide must decide on clear legislation for the global use of plastic materials in food and drinks and other consumer goods and warns a boycott won’t work.

“We have to be rational… it’s not reasonable enough to say ‘stop using the products’ without a solution,” he said.

“This is not just about straws… for mainstream restaurants and food outlets, this is all single-use disposable products.

“We have been looking for the past fifteen years at replacing… polypropylene. We found the materials but the pricing isn’t good enough. It’s a stuck situation. There is no reasonable substitution by far.”

source: BBC

Vodafone eyes European expansion with Liberty Global deal

Vodafone Group, the UK-based telecoms giant, has said it is in talks to buy some European assets owned by US cable company Liberty Global.

The firm said the discussions were at an “early stage” and there was “no certainty” the deal would go through.

The talks concern assets in markets where the firms overlap, including Germany, Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Vodafone emphasised that the talks were not about a merger with Liberty, which owns Virgin Media.

Vodafone, founded in the 1980s, operates in more than 30 countries and boasts more than 400 million customers globally.

The company has historically focused on cellular mobile phone services, but has more recently been expanding its fibre infrastructure, which supports faster internet and data downloading.

Liberty Global is an international television and broadband company that operates in more than 30 countries under names that include Virgin Media, and Telenet.

The company, run by billionaire John Malone, operates in 12 countries in Europe and also has a joint venture with Vodafone in the Netherlands.

The share prices in both companies increased after Vodafone’s announcement.

‘No certainty’

The telecoms industry has been going through a period of deal-making as phone companies attempt to offer their customers packages of television, broadband, mobile and traditional phone services.

Vodafone issued its statement on the talks after a media report that the two companies were discussing swapping some assets.

The two companies had similar discussions in 2015 that ended without a deal.

“Vodafone confirms that it is in early stage discussions with Liberty Global regarding the potential acquisition of certain overlapping continental European assets owned by Liberty Global,” it said.

“There is no certainty that any transaction will be agreed, nor as to the terms, timing or form of any transaction. Vodafone is not in discussion with Liberty Global regarding a combination of both companies.”

Source: BBC

US jobs and wages rise in January

The US labour market barrelled forward in January, as employers added more jobs than expected and wage growth was its strongest in more than eight years.

US payrolls expanded by 200,000 last month, driven by hiring in construction, food services and health care, the US Labor Department said.

The average hourly wage for private sector workers crept up 2.9% compared to January 2017.

The unemployment rate held steady at 4.1%.

Economists have puzzled over lacklustre wage growth, which has lagged in prior months despite the decline in the unemployment rate.

Without higher wages, economists have warned that economic growth will be difficult to sustain, since consumer spending plays a large role in the US economy.

The Labor Department report, released on Friday, showed average hourly earnings for private sector workers rose 9 cents in January, to $26.74. For the year, the increase was 75 cents.

The wage uptick coincided with mandatory minimum pay increases in 18 states. Major employers such as Walmart have also said they planned to boost earnings or provide bonuses.

Those factors may have helped lift last month’s numbers, but they make it harder to say if the increases will continue, said Lindsey Piezga, chief economist for fixed income at Stifel, based in Chicago.

“While that is encouraging, what we really need to see is sustained wage growth, not one-off, month-to-month volatility,” she said.

Other data in the report was a reminder that monthly gains can be fleeting.

For example, the unemployment rate among black workers jumped in January to 7.7%, rising after falling to a record low of 6.8% in December.

President Donald Trump had trumpeted that decline as evidence of economic improvement.

Slowing momentum?

The US is now in its ninth year of expansion and has been adding jobs steadily since 2010.

The increases in January occurred across most industries, a sign of solid growth.

The pace of hiring is slowing, however.

Over the last three months, payrolls increased by an average of 192,000 jobs, compared to over 200,000 in the same period the prior year.

“I don’t think we should be too excited about this,” said Ms Piezga.

“The momentum of the US economy is waning. We’re still talking about positive growth, positive job creation, but at a slower pace.”

Economists have said some slowdown in job creation is to be expected as new workers become harder to find.

Despite a relatively high number of job openings, participation in the labour force has remained stuck below 63%, several percentage points lower than it was before the financial crisis.

US stock indexes slid after the report.

Analysts said part of the decline was due to investor reaction to the wage increase, which is likely to keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates – and could make policymakers move more aggressively.

The Fed is one of several central banks that are turning from policies that were designed to boost economic activity in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

source: BBC

Dow sees sharpest drop since June 2016

The blue chip Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its steepest decline since June 2016 on Friday, amid wider losses in US markets.

The fall came after a string of disappointing earnings reports from giants such as Apple.

Strong wage growth in the latest payrolls data also spooked investors raising the possibility of higher interest rates than expected.

The Dow fell more than 665 points or 2.5% to 25,520.96.

The S&P 500 tumbled 59.8 points, falling 2.12% to 2,762.13, while the Nasdaq closed 144.91 points lower at 7,240.9, down 1.96%.

The losses touched every sector, with the steepest declines in energy and technology stocks.

Chevron and Exxon, which both reported quarterly earnings to investors on Friday, were the two biggest losers on the Dow, falling more than 5%.

Apple, which reported after the close of trading on Thursday, was number four, retreating 4.3%.

Stocks were also rattled as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note hit a four-year high after Friday’s payrolls report.

The gain in bond yields, which come as central banks globally ease stimulus programmes and raise rates, have touched off fears that stocks could become a less attractive investment, while signalling higher borrowing costs that could crimp consumer activity.

Analysts said markets may also be responding to outstanding political and policy issues, such as trade tensions with partners such as China and how tax cuts will shift corporate financial strategies.

“There are still a number of question marks on the side of fiscal policy,” said Lindsey Piezga, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income.

‘Real investing activity’

For the week, the Dow fell 4%, while the Nasdaq and S&P 500 each slipped by more than 3%.

Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the market declines, which follow a massive rally in 2017 that was fuelled by a strengthening global economy and high expectations for US corporate tax cuts.

The three major stocks indexes also closed January up more than 5%.

The Dow, which tracks about 30 major companies, in particular is not a good gauge, said Brian Barnier, head of analytics at Valuebridge Advisers.

“It’s very important to separate trading activity from real investing activity,” said Mr Barnier, who also teaches at the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York.

Assuming they have well-designed portfolios, “mom and pops sitting at home… should not be concerned, given the massive run up in the market,” he added.

source: BBC