Uber Learns To Drive On The Left, Soft Launches In London

Uber, the breakthrough car service app with big ambitions to do much more, is now making its way to international markets: today the car service company kicked off its London operation with a soft launch, just in time to start prepping for the summer tourist rush and the visitor onslaught also known as the Summer Olympics.

The launch is still at a very early stage — with “secret Ubers” prowling the roads, and the company still in research mode to figure out the best way of tackling the city according a blog post on Uber’s site. London, like many other European cities, is a tangle of streets — Black cab drivers have to pass a special test called “the knowledge” to be able to drive here, although this isn’t required to operate a non-Black cab.

As it has done with other city launches, the Uber crew has laid on a few VIPs to be the first passengers. Rider number one was a Dragon’s Den judge, Richard Farleigh.

Rider two was David Clark, director of astronaut relations (yes, that is a real job title) at Virgin Galactic.

Navigating small London streets in quite possibly large luxury cars is not the only challenge that might face Uber as it builds out its London service.

There is also the basic issue of competition: London has Black cabs, but it also has two other classes of cars for hire: small, independent local minicab firms and more established car service companies (like Addison Lee). It’s the latter that perhaps most closely matches Uber for the “luxury” experience it offers.

There are also two other companies offering car hire apps in London, Hailo and GetTaxi. At least two of them will get to duke it out over their relative merits before a live audience: both Uber and Hailo will be squaring off against each other next week at the LeWeb conference in London.

Uber’s international director Sam Gellman tells me that a full rollout won’t be coming for a couple of weeks. The operation will be led by UK country manager Chelsea Cooper.