Uber gets temporary two-month license reprieve in London

London’s transport regulator, TfL, has given Uber a temporary reprieve to continue operating in the UK capital.

The ride-hailing giant’s current (provisional) licence expires tomorrow but there’s no return to normality for Uber in its most important European city — with TfL issuing just a two-month extension on its private hire vehicle licence — not a full five-year term, as Uber had hoped.

The backstory here is TfL’s decision two years ago to deny Uber’s application to renew its licence — when it raised a range of safety and corporate governance issues.

The then scandal-struck company was nonetheless allowed to continue operating in London during an appeal process.

Uber went on to claim it was making changes to improve its processes and come into compliance with the regulator’s requirements. And in June 2018 a UK court granted it a provisional 15-month licence so it could continue to work on satisfying TfL’s conditions.

But the latest short leash extension puts the company on watch again.

TfL says the extension has the same conditions Uber has been subject to over the past 15 months, as well as some new conditions “to ensure passenger safety” which it says cover ride sharing, appropriate insurance and driver document checks by Uber.

Last year the court attached a number of extra conditions to Uber’s provisional licence to operate, including that the company produce an independently verified assurance report every six months; appoint three non-executive directors to its board; provide at least 28 days notice for changes to its operating model; and maintain arrangements with London’s Met Police for the reporting of passenger complaints that may be criminal — all of which still apply.

The regulator adds that it’s requesting additional material from Uber to inform any future licensing decision — emphasizing that its original concern included culture and governance issues.

“Uber London Limited has been granted a two-month private hire operator licence to allow for scrutiny of additional information that we are requesting ahead of consideration of any potential further licensing application,” a TfL spokesperson said in a statement.

In a statement responding to TfL’s decision, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe, sought to put a positive spin on not being knocked back entirely.

“TfL’s recognition of our improved culture and governance reflects the progress we have made in London. We will continue to work closely with TfL and provide any additional requested information,” he said.

“Over the past two years, we’ve launched a range of new safety features in the app, introduced better protections for drivers and our Clean Air Plan is helping to tackle air pollution. We will keep listening, learning and improving to provide the best service while being a trusted partner to London.”

Among the changes Uber claims to have made since the regulator stepped in and slapped down its licence renewal, are a new senior leadership team in the UK; limits to operating hours for drivers, with a log-out required at 10 hours; a 24/7 support centre staffed by trained agents to handle driver and rider safety queries; a free insurance product for drivers and a dedicated forum where they can share feedback; various safety alerts and privacy tweaks; and real-time public transport information shown within the app.

Uber also says it’s an “ambition” that every car on its app in London is fully electric in 2025 — saying it’s raised £50M to put towards helping licensed drivers upgrade to a fully electric vehicle.

There are major question marks about the rising costs of doing business for Uber as regulatory and legal requirements dial up around the world — including in the US.

Earlier this month California passed gig economy workers rights legislation that could see Uber on the hook for wage and benefit protections in its home market. While, in the UK, the company has continued to lose appeals against a successful legal challenge over drivers rights back in 2016.

Uber’s own investor prospectus warned potential shareholders the company may never be profitable.