Once again Uber, the taxi hailing app competing with traditional cab drivers around the world, is hitting the headlines. This time the company is waiting to see if its explosive growth in the UK will be curtailed by a High Court decision to determine whether its app breaks the law.
And as if that’s not enough to have a potentially devastating effect on its London business, Uber also faces the prospect of a severe crackdown as Transport for London (TfL) launch a consultation to improve customer experience.
Will the customer’s ride be improved by all of this, or will we simply be stuck in the dark ages with even more regulation, unable to take advantage of technological innovation?
The pressure is certainly on for the ride-hailing firm, and while of course we’d like to remain neutral, you can imagine how well the suppression of innovation goes down at Simplify the Law.
So what’s the High Court case about?
Black cabs in London are recognised the world over. Even though a growing proportion of them are as far from being black as it’s possible to be, the distinctive shape is genuinely iconic. And London taxi drivers are almost as famous as the cabs they drive. With their knowledge of The Knowledge they seem to find roads that you never knew existed, and the chat that comes with it is something quite special.
So it’s not surprising that when Uber arrived on the scene using technology to pick up fares, the black cabbies became worried about the threat to their livelihoods. And they’ve identified a legal argument to support their cause.
In short, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (which represents most of the 25,000 London black cab drivers) are claiming that the app used by Uber’s drivers is illegal because it calculates fares like a meter which, by law, is something only black cabs can have fitted in their cars.
What’s strange about the case is that TfL (London’s transport regulator) has actually already given its view on this, and has said that what Uber is doing is perfectly fine and legal. But unhappy with that verdict, the black cabs have taken it further. TfL has accepted that the law in this area is untested (not to mention out of date given recent advances in technology), and so it’s down to a High Court judge to give an interpretation of the law.
As things stand, the High Court has reserved judgment with the judge hoping that it won’t take him too long to hand down his decision. Watch this space…
When is a meter not a meter?
The judge will need to determine whether the smartphone app used by Uber drivers is in reality operating as a meter, like those found in black cabs, to calculate fares.
Using GPS technology, the app connects to external servers to calculate how much a customer owes based on the time a journey takes and the distance covered. That certainly sounds like a meter to us. But is it really?
The law prevents all private hire vehicles (essentially a car that must be pre-booked – so any London taxi that isn’t a black cab) from being fitted with a taximeter. And a taximeter is that little box in a taxi which measures how long the journey is. It’s also the same little box which always seems to rack up the fare far too quickly when you’re sitting in stationary traffic. Anyway, back to the point…
So, does an Uber driver’s phone become a taximeter when it’s running the app to calculate your fare? Black cab drivers say it does because it’s a device inside the car which calculates the fare by reference to the journey’s duration and distance. But Uber (somewhat unsurprisingly) disagrees. It claims that as the app has no actual physical connection to the car and any fare calculations take place on an Uber server transmitted to the phone, the device itself is not calculating the fares.
We wonder whether Uber could have picked their battles more wisely: even if they’re technically correct (which they may not be, anyway), it’s going to be hard for them to escape the fact that something which looks like a meter and acts like a meter, is probably going to be regarded as a meter. Even if the judgment is in their favour for now, it won’t take much for that loophole to be closed.
Double whammy for Uber
As if this wasn’t enough to give Uber’s executives a few sleepless nights, TfL has launched a public consultation aimed at improving the regulations governing London’s private hire trade. Many of the proposals would ban or restrict some of Uber’s key features causing the company a significant headache.
The proposals include:
- Forcing drivers to work for only one operation at a time;
- Restrictions on ride sharing;
- Forcing operators to provide booking confirmation details at least five minutes before a journey starts; and
- Banning operators from showing cars for hire within a smartphone app.
This will be bad news for Uber drivers, who tend to be part time, and we can wave goodbye to Uber’s plans to introduce its UberPool service in London. And as for being impressed when your Uber driver picks you up three minutes after you request – this will be a thing of the past.
An improvement to customer experience? We don’t think so. And it’s certainly not keeping pace with the ever-spreading, smartphone-based lifestyle.
Is the future bright?
Whatever happens in the High Court case, one thing is certain – it has highlighted just how outdated our laws are when it comes to taxis. The High Court’s decision could confirm TfL’s finding and make UK laws clearer or, if the decision goes against Uber, things will remain confused for the regulators in the future.
Uber is confident that it can survive a defeat in the High Court by changing the way its app operates. So with any luck we’ll be able to continue to order a taxi from our phones, rather than stand on the pavement seeking out that orange light before the person 10 yards down the street spots it.
And as for more regulation, we innovative types at Simplify the Law believe that less regulation is the order of the day. After all, who wants more rules in place to stifle technological advances and customer experience?