Uber versus black cabs: Battle lines drawn

By Dougal Shaw
Technology reporter

Media caption, Get in the cab with an Uber driver and a black-cab driver to hear their views

A clash is about to take place on the capital's streets that sees the old pitted against the new. The livelihoods of London's iconic cabbies are at stake. But could they be stifling opportunities for a new breed of driver - that could even include you?

London's black-cab drivers are preparing to cause gridlock in the capital on Wednesday, in protest at Transport for London's stance towards a mobile phone app that allows users to book private vehicles, using GPS technology to set the fare.

It's the hottest topic of conversation amongst cab drivers since Olympic traffic lanes. What should be done about Uber?

Black-cab driver Lloyd Baldwin is in no doubt. "Our beef with Uber is that these drivers have come straight into London, and have been licensed straight away by Transport for London. We're regulated to within an inch of our lives.

Image caption, Lloyd Baldwin has been a black cab driver for nearly 20 years

"We don't do protests willy-nilly for petty things, we feel it's our only course.

"We just want them to be treated exactly the same as we are."

The issue of "regulation" covers a multitude of sins as far as the black-cab drivers are concerned, from the extent to which Uber drivers are security-vetted to a driver's profit margins.

But perhaps the battle can best be summed up by two symbols that sit proudly on each rival's dashboard: the fare-calculating taximeter and the smartphone.

Curb competition

In the five years of its existence, San Francisco-based Uber has expanded its operation into more than 100 cities across 30 countries, causing conflict in its wake with traditional taxi associations.

Image caption, Uber drivers receive jobs through their smartphones

Its proposition is simple: users download an app to their mobile which they use to book cabs, wherever they may be. That much has already been offered to Londoners by firms like Kabbee and Hailo.

Uber has provoked controversy because of its pool of drivers. Anyone with a Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) licence can sign up with them. This has allowed Uber to build up a vast number of drivers quickly, many of whom only work part-time.

This makes Uber more like a minicab firm. But unlike a traditional minicab firm, there are no human operators available to take your booking on the phone at their offices. The process is completely automated by Uber's software, which allocates your booking to the driver best placed to take it on.

Uber evangelist

Ben John never imagined he would end up driving a cab round London.

Ironically, it was the digital revolution that got him into this situation. A successful A&R man for over a decade in the music industry, his profit margins suddenly shrunk as music downloads disrupted the record labels' business model.

For him, Uber has been a lifeline, providing him with lucrative, flexible work as he establishes his new start-up business selling e-cigarettes.

Image caption, For Ben John, driving for Uber is a short-term move as he switches career

Evidently grateful, he has become something of an Uber evangelist.

"You can log in and off from work as you want to, which allows you to do other things with your day," he says, while keeping an eye on the phone protruding from his dashboard.

"Because [Uber] are not actually a cab firm, they are just a software firm, they're just a third party that passes on the jobs, they are able to charge much more competitive prices, and are able to pay the drivers a great deal more as well."

A lack of overheads allows Uber to offer drivers 80% of the customer's fare.

Ultimately, Mr John doesn't think that Uber threatens the black cab trade.

"What I'm seeing is that Uber are actually expanding the number of people who would otherwise not use minicabs."

Back to black

From the comfort of his black cab, Lloyd Baldwin begs to differ. "We're not afraid of competition. We've faced competition from minicabs for 40 years."

But in this case, Mr Baldwin believes the competition is not on a level playing field.

"Transport for London now aren't sure if they [Uber] should have been given a licence or not, hence they've gone to the High Court for a judgment on it, but they still licensed them before they were sure."

The issue at stake is whether Uber's use of the smartphone equates to a taximeter, a talismanic object for black cab drivers, which they feel only they have the right to use.

TfL's original position was that it did not believe Uber was infringing the law because its kit did not require a physical connection between the device and the vehicle, as is the case with the equipment used by black cabs.

Image caption, The meter is a talismanic device for black cab drivers, and is at the heart of the conflict

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) dispute this.

Mr Baldwin wonders why Uber was able to introduce the smartphone as a way of measuring fares without more scrutiny.

"We suspect that they [Uber] are backed by big, multi-billion pound companies," he says.

His suspicion extends to Amazon, which is not in fact connected to Uber. However, Goldman Sachs and Google do offer it financial backing.

Uber evangelist Ben John is careful to always refer to his smartphone as a "GPS device", rather than a meter, and is keen to talk up its benefits.

"The difference is that there is actually a lot of recourse if you believe as a customer that your driver is taking an overly long route, you can go back to Uber, and the price given back to you if need be."

You can also nominate a friend or loved-one to track your journey, as a security feature.

However, GPS-tracking could also be the Achilles heel of the firm, if data privacy fears arise. Uber has already handed over details on some of its customers' journeys to the authorities. By law, minicab and black-cab firms have to do the same, but they simply don't record their customer's journeys in the same level of digital detail.

Uber allies?

The cause of the black-cab drivers recently suffered a reverse with the announcement that app Hailo - which at first offered its services only to black cabs - would be working with private-hire vehicles.

"We feel that they used us to give them a place in the market, they used our reputation and our good name," says Mr Baldwin.

"We just feel used by Hailo," he says, with more bitterness in his voice than he reserves for Uber or TfL.

Twenty years ago, he explains, when mobile phones were still uncommon objects, he invested three very tough years of his life learning to become a black-cab driver. He devoted long hours to learning The Knowledge, the fabled test of a driver's memory of London's sprawling streets, which also includes a psychological test to see how you deal with difficult customers.

He thought those years of hardship were worth it, because he was earning a lifetime of guaranteed work, and the badge of pride that is the black cab.

But Uber and Hailo appear to be taking a bet on a different future where there is no meaningful distinction between black cabs and minicabs.

It's this vision of the future that the black cabbies are protesting against on Wednesday.

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