Uber's Driverless Cars Are Clouded by Possible Federal Probe

A judge's unusual recommendation for federal prosecutors to investigate allegations that Uber Technologies Inc. and a top executive stole Google's driverless-car trade secrets casts a new shadow over one of Uber's most critical initiatives.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup late Thursday referred Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s lawsuit against Uber to the U.S. Attorney's Office, asking federal prosecutors to probe Alphabet's claims that one of its former executives colluded with Uber to steal 14,000 files related to driverless-car design.

Lawyers and law professors said Judge Alsup's referral has little, if any, precedent in a civil trade-secrets case. They said the judge's move suggests he believes there is strong evidence of trade-secret theft and potentially that federal investigators will be able to uncover more evidence than Alphabet's attorneys. Attorneys for Uber and Anthony Levandowski, the Google-turned-Uber executive at the center of the case, have repeatedly fought efforts to turn over some documents.

"This is a big deal," said Rutgers University law professor Michael Carrier, who specializes in intellectual property. "There are lots of trade-secret cases filed and litigated everyday; it's the most common type of IP case. But very few make it to the stage that they could constitute a criminal investigation."

Judge Alsup said in his order Thursday that the evidence thus far led him to refer the case to federal prosecutors. "The court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted," he wrote in his order.

Uber declined to comment. Alphabet's driverless-car unit, Waymo, and attorneys for Mr. Levandowski didn't respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department, which oversees U.S. attorneys, also didn't respond.

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com and Greg Bensinger at greg.bensinger@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 12, 2017 15:51 ET (19:51 GMT)