A California court decided this week to let Waymo go into hiding some of the safety data of its autonomous vehicles— a move that could impact how other self-driving vehicle makers handle the trade secrets of their self-driving technology in the future.
The decision, which was released Tuesday by Sacramento County Superior Court and which you can read for yourself here, marks the end of a short and bitter legal battle launched by Waymo last month. The company owned by Alphabet for follow-up State Department of Motor Vehicles to prevent the agency from releasing proprietary details about its public safety protocols to the general public. The DMV, at the time, was considering how best to respond to a public record asks Waymo’s app to deploy its technology in Sacramento.
Waymo, for its part, believed in complete writing pretty much every part of the app, including the DMV’s own questions, arguing that they might inform the company a lot a lot competitors in the region on the secret sauce underlying its cars. Whoever made that initial request for the records responded by immediately challenging Waymo’s deletions. Honestly, it’s hard to blame them: those redacted items contained details about the potential injuries and other issues that have arisen in the name of Waymo’s driverless technology that sound a lot less like trade secrets, and a lot more like…dirty laundry that Waymo doesn’t want to spread.
Waymo fired back with to chase the state DMV on January 21, arguing that “[p]Potential market players interested in deploying autonomous vehicles in California will be deterred from investing valuable time and resources in developing this technology if there is a proven track record of leaking their trade secrets.
Now, just over a month later, it appears the court has agreed.
“The Court was not advised of any urgency to obtain the redacted information and of any interim harm that would occur if the urgency were ignored,” Judge Shelleyanne Chang wrote in her ruling. On the other hand, the potential harm of disclosing some of those aforementioned secrets — which would “allow Waymo’s competitors to access confidential information regarding the design, process and operational implementation of Waymo’s AVs” — could be a blow to the company, a she added.
A Waymo spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email that the company was “satisfied that the court made the right decision in granting Waymo’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing the disclosure of competitively sensitive trade secrets that Waymo had included in the permit application she submitted to the CA DMV.”
“We will continue to openly share safety and other data about our autonomous driving technology and operations, while recognizing that the detailed technical information we share with regulators is not always appropriate to share with the public.” he continued.
This case is a big win for Waymo, but it’s a success for critics who are already skeptical of the driverless car industry at large. National regulators have struggled to keep up with these huge chunks of self-contained metal, even as they populate quickly the streets of cities like Sacramento. Waymo alone has spent the past few years testing hundreds vehicles across the Bay Area, with Tesla dragging not far behind with its own fleet.
And now, thanks to this decision, these companies have the green light to keep some of the safety specifications of their devices secret: how cars analyze potential collisions with other vehicles, when the technology decides that humans should take the wheel, and what constraints allow cars to handle the winding streets and steep hills of San Francisco.
Right now, the only outside eyes looking at these specs are the DMVs—and historically, the agency hasn’t been the shrewdest when it comes to handling these cars in action. Earlier this year, the California DMV announcement it would be “revisiting” Tesla’s ongoing testing of its self-driving vehicle technology on state roads. But even this move took countless stories of people drive in traffic and by car from back seat. Oh, and a a literal dog was seen going down a Texas street using Tesla Autopilot a month before California DMV made its announcement.
So, yeah, you can forgive us for being a little skeptical that the DMV is the only body evaluating Waymo’s safety specs here. Right now the best we have to work on is the miserable three white papers and studies that the company has submitted for public scrutiny. And unless we get another high-profile dog-and-drive scenario, some stripped-back corporate reporting might be all we need.