Uber: A Fuss About Nothing?

uberlondonThe row over London taxis brought the capital to a standstill yesterday, with black cab drivers blocking streets around Trafalgar Square to protest the use of Uber by private hire cars.

As well as enabling punters to identify and flag a ride that is nearby, the Uber app gives drivers the ability to calculate fares. Cabbies argue this means that Uber drivers are offering metered journeys to people who use their service – something that normally requires a Hackney Carriage licence.

TfL has not upheld the cabbies complaint, as they dont think GPS and distance tracking on a smartphone should not be classed as a meter, but the issue has now been sent to the High Court.

Whats the beef?
Companies have been trying to transform the London cab market for many years now. Those with a long memory may remember using SMS, with operator billing mechanism, back in 2003 with the Taxi Point system. In 2010, @tweetalondoncab was founded as a driver collective that came together to make it easier to find cabs via Twitter. These systems probably came too early, and lacked funding and leading-edge execution, but both built support among black cab drivers.

It’s anyone’s guess why so many people feel the need to get taxis around central London when Boris Bikes, tube, bus and rail networks have you covered to almost eventuality. But tourists, and people who prefer not to enjoy the comfort of a stranger’s armpit for 20 minutes at rush hour, continue to ensure the London taxi market is a fiercely competitive one – Kabbee, Hailo, Addison Lee, GetTaxi, CabMania anyone? – and this is not the first sign of trouble. Hailo, founded by London cabbies but recently opened up to private hire cars too, had its office vandalised in May.

But this is also not an isolated issue. There was a simultaneous protest against Uber taking place in Germany yesterday, and the service was recently banned in Brussels. San Francisco and other cities in the US have also faced similarly bitter disputes.

It takes around three years to pass the mandatory geography test, The Knowledge, and costs more than £1,000, to qualify as a black cab driver. This includes a medical examination, something that non-cabbies don’t have to do at present, plus black cab purchase or rent and insurance. Cabbies also have to replace their cab every 15 years no matter what state its in.

But flag down a black cab when youre in a hurry and youll likely have to stop off to grab some cash – not the end of the world, but baffling given the number of mPOS systems launched in the past year – while Uber is a completely cashless app. An ‘experiment’ by The Independent yesterday also found Uber to be 37.5 per cent cheaper, not to mention the additional refreshments they provide in-car. But as their costs look like they are significantly lower, this should come as no surprise. And this is hardly the small disruptive startup vs the powerful taxi lobby: Uber is backed by both Google and Goldman Sachs.

To counteract the negative publicity of the protest, or in fact, to capitalise on it, Uber has revealed that it will now be allowing black cab drivers to use its service in the same way as other professional drivers. The fiercely independent, self-employed cabbies may not be happy to give five per cent of their fares to Uber, but CNET reported an 850 per cent surge in normal user registrations yesterday, proving that any publicity is good publicity.

It doesnt appear that black cab drivers are anti-innovation, but they are clearly not afraid to fight for a level playing field. Black cabs are an iconic part of London life, but perhaps TfL should take a look at re-engineering the system for the 21st century, not least because driverless cars look to be less than a decade away. Could cabbies become Londons best-ever tour guides?

Many in the tech industry will argue that tools like mapping app Waze replace the need for The Knowledge and actually work better as they enable drivers to collaborate around identifying traffic hot-spots. But this is yet another Google-backed company creeping its way into our everyday lives. Rumour has it, Uber is set to be embedded into Google Maps. THEN THERES NO STOPPING THEM.

For now, clever cabbies might look at signing up for all with the different app providers out and playing them off against each other, similar to the way a hotel might list itself across a whole variety of sites and services.