Vigilante engineer stops Waymo from patenting key lidar know-how

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A lone engineer has succeeded in doing what Uber’s high attorneys and knowledgeable witnesses couldn’t—overturning most of a foundational patent overlaying arch-rival Waymo’s lidar laser ranging units.

Following a shock left-field grievance by Eric Swildens, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has rejected all however three of 56 claims in Waymo’s 936 patent, named for the final three digits of its serial quantity. The USPTO discovered that some claims replicated know-how described in an earlier patent from lidar vendor Velodyne, whereas one other declare was merely “impossible” and “magic.”

Swildens, who receives no cash or private benefit from the choice, instructed Ars that he was delighted on the information. “The patent shouldn’t have been filed in the first place,” he mentioned. “It’s a very well written patent. However, my personal belief is that the thing that they say they invented, they didn’t invent.”

The 936 patent performed a key position in final 12 months’s epic mental property lawsuit with Uber. In December 2016, a Waymo engineer was inadvertently copied on an e mail from considered one of its suppliers to Uber, displaying a lidar circuit design that appeared virtually similar to at least one proven within the 936 patent.

The patent describes how a laser diode may be configured to emit pulses of laser mild utilizing a circuit that features an inductor and a gallium nitride transistor. That probability discovery helped spark a lawsuit by which Waymo accused Uber of patent infringement and of utilizing lidar secrets and techniques supposedly stolen by engineer Anthony Levandowski.

In August 2017, Uber agreed to revamp its Fuji lidar to not infringe the 936 patent. Then, in February 2018, Waymo settled the remaining commerce secret theft allegations in trade for Uber fairness value round $245 million and a dedication from Uber to not copy its know-how. “This includes an agreement to ensure that any Waymo confidential information is not being incorporated in Uber… hardware and software,” mentioned a Waymo spokesperson on the time.

That redesign now appears to have been pointless, says Swildens, the engineer who requested the USPTO to take a more in-depth take a look at 936. “Waymo’s claim that Uber infringed the 936 patent was spurious, as all the claims in the patent that existed at the time of the lawsuit have been found to be invalid,” he mentioned.

Uber instructed Ars that regardless of the ruling, it will not be redesigning its lidars but once more.

Just an bystander

Remarkably, Swildens doesn’t work for Uber or for Velodyne, nor for some other self-driving developer—he works for a small cloud computing startup. Swildens got interested within the patent when it surfaced in the course of the Uber case, and he noticed how easy Waymo’s lidar circuit gave the impression to be. “I couldn’t imagine the circuit didn’t exist prior to this patent,” he instructed Wired final 12 months.

Swildens’ analysis uncovered a number of patents and books that appeared to pre-date the Waymo patent. He then spent $6,000 of his personal cash to launch a proper problem to 936. Waymo fought again, making dozens of filings, bringing knowledgeable witnesses to bear, and making an attempt to re-write a number of of the patent’s claims and diagrams to safeguard its survival.

The USPTO was not impressed. In March, an examiner famous {that a} re-drawn diagram of Waymo’s lidar firing circuit confirmed present passing alongside a wire between the circuit and the bottom in two instructions—one thing usually deemed unattainable. “Patent owner’s expert testimony is not convincing to show that the path even goes to ground in view of the magic ground wire, which shows current moving in two directions along a single wire,” famous the examiners dryly.

In September, the axe lastly dropped. With a number of exceptions, these claims that weren’t bodily unattainable had been discovered to have replicated lidar circuits present in pre-existing patents, particularly one referred to as 558 issued to Dave Hall, founding father of lidar-maker Velodyne. Swildens says that he is unsurprised by the consequence and considers his cash effectively spent. “As I investigated the 936 patent, it became clear it was invalid due to prior art for multiple reasons,” he says. “I only filed the reexamination because I was absolutely sure the patent was invalid.”

Waymo declined to touch upon the document, however the firm may now discover itself in an ungainly place. In 2017, Waymo CEO John Krafcik stood up on the Automobili-D convention in Detroit and introduced that his firm, which had beforehand purchased dozens of lidars from Velodyne, was now designing and constructing all of its sensors in-house and “from the ground up.”

Krafcik went on to ship some sly digs at his former provider. “Designing our own lidar system has not only given us a more reliable product than what we can get off the shelf, but it’s enabled us to do it at a fraction of the cost,” he mentioned. “Just a few years ago, a single top of the range [Velodyne] lidar unit would have cost $75,000. Today, we’ve brought that cost down by more than 90 percent.”

The USPTO’s findings name that narrative into query, believes Swildens. “The design of the Waymo lidar appears to be based on the design of the Velodyne lidar units they had been using,” he says. “As part of this, Waymo utilized circuitry similar to Velodyne circuitry and then attempted to patent (and did patent) those circuit designs as their own novel inventions.”

Pot, meet kettle?

In its authentic lawsuit towards Uber, Waymo wrote: “Waymo developed its patented inventions… at great expense, and through years of painstaking research, experimentation, and trial and error. If defendants are not enjoined from their infringement and misappropriation, they will cause severe and irreparable harm to Waymo.” If Velodyne believes that its 558 patent covers lidars that Waymo is now on the purpose of commercializing, it may make an identical grievance in court docket itself.

However, the state of affairs is sophisticated by the truth that Velodyne is presently embroiled in its personal patent dispute with a startup referred to as Quanergy that’s creating solid-state lidars. Velodyne has accused Quanergy of infringing its mental property, whereas Quanergy in flip claims that Velodyne’s authentic 558 patent is itself invalid.

Velodyne is making an attempt to shore up 558 by rewriting it, however judges within the case famous in a latest submitting that there was “a reasonable likelihood” that at the least considered one of its claims can be unpatentable. Velodyne didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Self-driving startups mustn’t take this authorized confusion as carte blanche to make use of the lidar know-how described in Waymo’s and Velodyne’s patents, warns Brian Love, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute on the Santa Clara University School of Law. “There’s a joke among patent lawyers that a final rejection is anything but final, because owners still have options even after a final rejection,” he tells Ars. “And to get an award in a patent action, you only have to show infringement of one claim in one patent. The fact that there’s even one claim left in Waymo’s patent means there’s one shot for arguing that someone infringes that claim.”

Waymo additionally has tons of of different patents developed in-house, or purchased from rivals. They may not all include the “magic” claims of 936, however they’re most likely sufficient to maintain Waymo within the driving seat of autonomous automobiles for a while—particularly as Swildens says he is too busy proper now to problem any extra patent challenges.

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