Waymo, the autonomous driving arm of Alphabet, scored a victory on Tuesday when a California court ruled it could keep certain details about its AV technology secret.
The company filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Motor Vehicles in late January to keep some information about its autonomous vehicle deployment license, as well as emails between the DMV and the company, redacted from a public filing application. , originally filed by an undisclosed third party.
The California Superior Court decision in Sacramento could set a precedent for broader protection of trade secrets, at least in the autonomous vehicle industry, involving public access to information related to public safety but which the companies claim contain trade secrets.
In your lawsuitWaymo argued that being forced to reveal trade secrets would hurt its investments in automated driving technology and have a “creepy effect on the entire industry”, where the DMV is no longer a safe space for companies to share information about their technology transparently. .
“We are pleased that the court reached the right decision in granting Waymo’s application for an injunction preventing the disclosure of competition-sensitive trade secrets that Waymo had included in the permission application submitted to CA DMV,” a spokesperson said. from Waymo. Ploonge. “We will continue to openly share safety and other data about our autonomous driving technology and operations, recognizing that the detailed technical information we share with regulators is not always appropriate for sharing with the public.”
Like any other self-driving technology company looking to test and deploy in California, Waymo had to submit information about its safety practices and technology to the DMV, which followed up with more specific questions. When the DMV received the public records request for Waymo’s permission application information, the agency gave Waymo a chance to censor any sections it considered revealing trade secrets. Waymo did this, and the DMV sent the package to the third party with the main portions blocked. The applicant defied the blackouts, and the DMV, not wanting to get caught in the middle, advised Waymo to file a temporary retraining order against the DMV, according to Waymo. A judge then issued the restraining order on February 2, giving Waymo more time to seek an injunction banning the release of the material in unedited form forever.
Waymo has filed the suit because it wants to protect details about how its AVs identify and navigate certain conditions, how they determine the circumstances under which the AV will revert control to a human driver, when to support an AV fleet, and how the company addresses disengagement incidents and collision incidents, according to the process.
“These R&D efforts take many years and a huge financial investment,” says Waymo’s statement shared with the court. “Waymo’s AV development started as part of Google in 2009 before Waymo became its own company in 2016; therefore, Waymo AVs have been in development for over 12 years. Waymo has invested really significant amounts researching and developing their AV products.”
It is difficult, however, to determine whether or not the information contains trade secrets without being able to see any of it.
“The question is, can the company gain economic value purely by not sharing this information with others?” Matthew Wansley, former general counsel of nuTonomy (which Aptiv acquired) and professor of law at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, told Ploonge.
Software flaws that detail problems of perceiving objects or predicting how other agents in the world will respond, for example, are highly confidential because they can reveal information about how the technology works, allowing competitors to copy it or just assess where it is relative to. a particular business, Wansley said. It makes sense, therefore, that a company would not want to share this information publicly. However, if a regulator wanted more information under the promise of confidentiality, Wansley said he would be much more inclined to share because he trusts that the regulator knows the technology is not perfect and is more concerned with reducing risk rather than reducing it. it to zero.
“I’ve looked at the complaint that Waymo has filed and the categories of information they’re talking about are pretty broad,” Wansley said. “Are there trade secrets in that set of information they sent? There are probably some. Does it include all the information they submitted? Almost certainly not. The only thing that would surprise me is if everything they claim to be a trade secret is actually a trade secret. But without knowing the specific information they share with regulators, it’s hard to know.”
And now the public will never know. While the business community may consider this outcome a success, the state of California and the general public may have legitimate public safety concerns around autonomous vehicles and may not trust their regulators to make decisions on their behalf.
AV technology is very complex and sophisticated, and many regulators aren’t exactly engineers. Some would argue that the public has a right to verify that critical public-facing decisions are being made properly through public hearings or academic studies.
“I think in some ways this goes to the heart of how you develop public trust in public vehicles if it’s just a black box?” Ryan Koppelman, intellectual property litigation attorney and partner at Alston & Bird, told Ploonge. “And this is a fundamental issue with autonomous vehicles, where it’s really fair, data input, data output and the results indicate that it’s safe. So companies will say you don’t need to know what’s going on in the black box, just know it’s safe and trust us. And trust the DMV, who peeked into the black box and signed it, and that should be good enough for the audience.”
For its part, Waymo pointed to the range of information it shares with the public to assuage any fears about its technology. For example, it publishes an AV security report, has submitted a security self-assessment to the US Department of Transportation, and is publishing a law enforcement engagement guide and a detailed description of its security methodologies.