Waymo sues DMV to keep robot taxi safety information private

Waymo, the self-driving car company that operates a fleet of autonomous taxis in San Francisco, is suing the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The immediate question is whether a company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. can hide security-related information from the public by declaring it a trade secret.

Topics Waymo wants to keep under wraps include how it plans to deal with driverless car emergencies, what it will do if the robot taxi starts going where it shouldn’t go, and what limits are placed on the vehicle’s ability. cross the tunnels of San Francisco. , sharp turns and steep climbs. Waymo also wants to keep descriptions of accidents involving self-driving cars private.

This is one of the data that the DMV requires to determine whether to issue permits for the use of robotic vehicles on public roads.

The permit was issued last year. Waymo is focusing on San Francisco, where their robot taxis currently operate under the supervision of trained drivers.

The broader question is how to deal with the explosive growth of trade secret claims in the age of artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, and ubiquitous data collection.

Lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court Jan. 1. 21, argues that Waymo would have lost out to other self-driving car companies if the full details of the permits were made available to the public.

The lawsuit is based on a request for public records to the DMV from an unidentified person or entity seeking a Waymo app for driverless deployment – a basic completed form, additional material attachments, and answers to additional questions from the DMV.

Before releasing the material, DMV suggested that Waymo censor sections that the company believed would expose trade secrets. The DMV has sent a package to the requester with a blackout of major parts, including the complete obscuring of some of the DMV’s own questions.

Whoever requested the material then contested the blackout. According to the lawsuit, DMV contacted Waymo and suggested that the company sue the agency.

“Every autonomous vehicle company has a responsibility to demonstrate the safety of their technology, so we are transparently and consistently sharing our safety preparedness data with the public,” Waymo spokesman Nicholas Smith said in an email when asked about the lawsuit. “We will continue to work with CA DMV to determine what is right for us to release to the public and hope to find a solution soon.”

The position of the DMV on this issue remains unclear. The agency has yet to provide a response to the lawsuit and has told The Times that it will not discuss ongoing legal issues.

Essentially, the DMV puts the responsibility on the courts to determine what is and is not a trade secret, and what balance needs to be struck between corporate requirements and the public interest. These claims can take years to resolve. Therefore, if something from the edited material is made public, then most likely not soon.

The appeal to the courts is understandable, says Sharon Sandin, professor of law and director of the Intellectual Property Institute at Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Louis. Paul, Minnesota.

For government agencies that are subject to government records laws, “the default rule is assumed to be disclosure unless there is an explicit exception,” said Sandin, who investigates the intersection AI and trade secrets. But laws regarding public documents and trade secrets are far from clear, she said. Controversial court rulings and a lack of clarity in the law have led agencies to fear that if they “do not comply with everything the company wants,” they risk being prosecuted for intellectual property theft.

According to her, trade secrets are not automatically protected from public disclosure in matters requiring state regulation. She points to long, detailed financial documents that companies must file with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Companies would presumably prefer not to, she said, but they should if they want to sell shares to the general public.

Sandin said she had no objection to protecting real trade secrets. Few lawyers dispute the idea that legitimate trade secrets should be protected by law. But trade secret cases mushroom even as companies collect massive amounts of data about people, information they consider proprietary to their business, prompting critics to wonder if their claims of trade secrets are overbroad and deliberately exaggerated.

“Corporate and government officials have sought to make trade secret law one of the most, if not the most, powerful tool for enforcing information suppression,” law professors Charles Graves and Sonya Katyal wrote in the article. published in the Georgetown Law Journal in June.

“Ironically, this happened just at a time when the opaque nature of algorithmic decision-making, coupled with the new interplay between government agencies and private technology, has created a crisis regarding access to information for journalists, regulators and others working in the public interest.”

Sandin said that a distinction should be made between a trade secret and an ordinary secret.

“There needs to be leadership at the legislative and executive levels that will say that this is the type of information that we need in the public interest,” she said.

The matter will remain controversial.

In its lawsuit, Waymo says that the disclosure of the safety information in question will have a “chilling effect across the industry… Potential market participants interested in deploying autonomous vehicles in California will not invest valuable time and resources in developing this technology.” if there is a demonstrated track record of divulging their trade secrets.”

Sandin said: “The goal of having cars roaming publicly funded streets without a driver is a really important public interest, and they shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind trade secrets to avoid scrutiny.”

In this case, the judge makes the decision. As technology becomes more widespread, politicians and the public will continue to argue about what information corporations should and should be allowed to keep hidden.