As #Ubergeddon Reaches London, Uber Launches UberTAXI To Win Hearts And Minds

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I’m writing this from the safety of my North London bunker. It’s #Ubergeddon here in London, as black cab drivers — the UK capital city’s fully licensed “meter”-equipped taxis — have taken to the streets in protest against U.S.-headquartered Uber’s expansion to London.

Their beef: Uber is operating outside the law because it is “using a smartphone app to calculate fares despite it being illegal for private vehicles to be fitted with taximeters.” Or so they say.

(Strictly speaking Uber cars are not fitted with meters but use an app and data to calculate fares, give or take a bit of surge pricing, which they argue isn’t really any different to traditional licensed private hire cars i.e. “mini cabs”.)

Uber disagrees, of course, and the regulator, Transport for London (TfL) appears to side with the heavily VC-backed U.S. company and is refusing to intervene. Ultimately, the whole thing will be decided in the UK’s High Court, but that isn’t good enough for the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, which has encouraged today’s protest to go ahead.

Gridlock and “chaos” was promised, and while it’s hard to tell exactly how well that’s panned out — I’m (sensibly) nowhere near the scene — the #Ubergeddon hashtag on Twitter doesn’t look too reassuring. This is how 1st world problem wars are fought these days.

Cue an audacious PR attempt by Uber in London to win hearts and minds. It’s announced the launch of UberTAXI as another transport option within its Uber service.

Using the same app, you’ll be able to book a London black taxi, alongside the other private transport options. The company will take a flat 5% commission and black taxis through Uber will operate just how they already do. Once your taxi arrives, the meter starts ticking.

The only “innovation” here is the use of a smartphone app to “hail” the cab, but existing companies operating in London already offer this facility, including Computer Cab, Dial ‘a’ Cab and of course Hailo.

But the intended (PR) take-away is: What are the black cab drivers complaining about? Now they can get in on the Uber action, too.

The broader issue here, of course, is old industries and vested interests being “disrupted” by technology — previously protected by regulation, which now looks increasingly outdated. And in the taxi space in London, this isn’t exclusive to Uber by any means. Our very own Mike Butcher does a great job of explaining the issues and wider market dynamics.

Not one to miss a PR opportunity, the EU’s Neelie Kroes has pitched in on the debate today. According to her, “the debate about taxi apps is really a debate about the wider sharing economy.” A lot of what she writes makes sense, but I for one fail to see how Uber has anything to do with “sharing”.

This is really about technology greasing the wheels of a more efficient marketplace. Who that ultimately benefits — consumers, Uber’s shareholders, taxi drivers (or all three) — is yet to be seen.

But, for now, I’m staying in my bunker.

Photo credit: Dan Grech