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Summary:

The city’s transport authority says it reckons the services of companies like Uber don’t qualify for regulation in the same way as traditional taxi services do, but it realizes the law is unclear on this point and wants senior judges to step in.

Black Cab on Westminister Bridge
photo: Shutterstock / Rob Wilson

London’s transport authority will ask the British High Court to decide whether car services such as Uber that use smartphones to determine the customer’s fare should be regulated in the same way as traditional “black cabs” and private hire services.

As in France and New York and pretty much every other city where app-based services like Uber are operational, London has seen a significant backlash from more old-school rivals. In London, the taxi industry is regulated by Transport for London (TfL), which makes sure that cabbies all have “The Knowledge” — a comprehensive, testable understanding of the city’s intricate and ancient streets that obviates the need for GPS or paper maps.

London’s cabbies are furious with the likes of Uber and Hailo, not just because they pose a massive threat by being more convenient, but because their drivers apparently don’t need to adhere to the same stringent standards. Last week black cab drivers attacked and vandalized Hailo’s offices, and a big protest is planned for 11 June, with the intention of gridlocking the U.K. capital.

One of the traditional cabbies’ points is that only licensed cabs can have taximeters, the meters that calculate distance travelled and the resulting fare. The drivers claim that the new-fangled smartphone apps that underpin Uber and the like qualify as taximeters because they calculate distance and fares, which would mean that Uber cars are currently breaking the law by not being properly licensed as taxis.

On Thursday, TfL indicated in a statement that it was inclined to side with Uber on this one:

TfL set out its provisional view that smart phones used by private hire drivers – which act as GPS tracking devices to measure journey distances and time taken, and relays information so that fares can be calculated remotely from the vehicle – do not constitute the equipping of a vehicle with a ‘taximeter’.

However, the transport authority admitted the law in this area was somewhat woolly, and said it wanted High Court judges to clear things up. TfL also said it had audited Uber’s record keeping and business model and found that, while the records were in order, “TfL remains concerned about certain technical aspects of Uber’s operating model and this is being addressing with the operator.”

The cabbies aren’t impressed and told the BBC they’d be launching a case of their own. Stay tuned.