Waymo can keep some driverless data secret for another 22 days

Waymo had a small win Monday in its fight to keep certain details about its autonomous vehicle operations from public view.

The Alphabet-owned company filed a lawsuit last week against the California Department of Motor Vehicles to keep some information from its autonomous vehicle deployment permit, as well as emails between the company and the DMV, redacted from a public record request, which was originally filed by an undisclosed third party. On Monday, a judge issued Waymo a temporary restraining order, giving the company 22 more days to avoid divulging the redacted information.

There will be another hearing on February 22 to decide on the issue of permanent injunctive relief. The hearing will dig into the question of whether or not the information should continue to be redacted from the public record in perpetuity.

Every autonomous vehicle developer, including Waymo, that tests and deploys in California must receive a series of permits from the California DMV. To apply for one of California’s permits, companies need to submit information about their safety practices and technology, information about which the DMV usually asks follow up questions.

After receiving the public record request for Waymo’s permit application, the DMV invited the company to censor sections that might reveal trade secrets. Waymo did so, even going as far as to censor certain questions the DMV had for Waymo, and the DMV sent the package to the third party with major portions blocked out. When the requester then challenged the blackouts, the DMV told Waymo it would have to release the information unless Waymo sought an injunction prohibiting the disclosure of the material in unredacted form. According to Waymo, the DMV advised the company to also file a temporary restraining order against the DMV.

At the hearing on Monday, the DMV did not oppose Waymo’s application for a temporary restraining order, according to the company. The DMV’s somewhat passive role in the matter signals that the agency isn’t interested in taking a side in the argument and is throwing it to the courts to decide.

Waymo wants to protect details about how its AVs identify and navigate through certain conditions, how they determine the circumstances under which the AV will revert control to a human driver, when to provide support to an AV fleet, and how the company addresses disengagement incidents and collision incidents, according to the lawsuit the company filed with the Superior Court of California, Sacramento.

The company not only argues that revealing the information will cause damage to Waymo and undermine its investments into automated driving technology, but also that it will have a “chilling effect across the industry.”

“Potential market participants interested in deploying autonomous vehicles in California will be dissuaded from investing valuable time and resources developing this technology if there is a demonstrated track record of their trade secrets being released,” reads the lawsuit.

In other words, other companies might get spooked about how much information they want to share with the DMV in the future, and rather than having a transparent dialogue between the private sector and the agency, the industry might opt for complying strictly with regulations, rather than complying with the spirit of the regulation — this could, in turn, have an impact on the safety of the technology overall if the DMV doesn’t have the fullest picture it needs to create and enforce autonomous vehicle regulations.

On the other hand, Matthew Wansley, former general counsel of nuTonomy (which Aptiv acquired) and a law professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York, previously told TechCrunch that he doubts all of the information Waymo wanted to keep redacted would actually qualify as a trade secret, but noted it was difficult to know without being able to actually see the redacted information.