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The self-driving cars wars have triggered vicious shenanigans over top engineering talent

With companies like Uber betting billions on self-driving cars, amid competition from Apple, Google, Tesla and the major automakers, the shortage of qualified engineers is sparking vicious legal battles.

To make things even more interesting, a lot of the engineers involved are figuring out that they can quit their jobs, start competing self-driving car tech businesses, and force their old employers to bid against their competitors to re-hire them in the form of an acquisition.

A lot of this is playing out in California, where non-compete agreements are generally not enforceable — a fact that is responsible in large part for the growth of Silicon Valley, where talented engineers can leave dysfunctional companies and work for better ones (contrast with, say, Massachusetts, where taking a job at a company that turns out to be a steaming pile dooms you to switching sectors for three years after you quit, which acts as a drag on the whole sector).

Trade secret fights are common in Silicon Valley, but one thing that makes this one unique is Google’s involvement, which highlights the priority it is placing on its self-driving car program.

"Google doesn’t sue people – period," said Eric Goldman, director of Santa Clara Law’s High Tech Law Institute. "It’s very exceptional to find Google as a plaintiff."

The self-driving car industry was once a close-knit community, Stanford’s Smith said, but the Waymo lawsuit illustrates how far it’s come since those early days.

"A lot of people were doing a lot of the same things at the same time – working at a university, consulting with a company and starting their own startup," he said. "Researchers were pretty freely sharing information."

Tesla filed a similar lawsuit against a former employee in January. The suit accuses former Autopilot program manager Sterling Anderson of nabbing Tesla’s confidential information and trying to recruit at least a dozen of the company’s engineers before leaving to found a competing startup.

Anderson and Chris Urmson, the former chief technology officer of Google’s self-driving car program, recently launched self-driving car startup Aurora Innovation.

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