Uber taxi row goes to court in UK

With a taxi driver demonstration set to gridlock the city, London's transport authority is turning to the courts to provide a definitive ruling on controversial e-hailing app Uber.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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One of London's famous black taxicabs. Rich Trenholm/CNET

Uber is being taken to court in Britain in a battle between the popular e-hailing app and angry cabbies. With taxi drivers planning to gridlock city streets next month, London's transport authorities want to clear up the controversy once and for all.

Transport for London, which licenses taxi and private hire operators in the British capital, is referring Uber to the High Court in order to get a definitive ruling on certain aspects of the service.

Uber is an app that enables you to order and pay for a car on your phone. Now picking people up in 35 countries, the app has proved enormously controversial with taxi drivers and existing private hire operators, sparking demonstrations around the world. London cabbies plan to protest by blocking streets on 11 June.

Uber's arrival has shaken up the industry in a way that gives consumer's easier access to cabs, but cabbies argue that the playing field isn't level. The controversy could bring the city to a standstill, and authorities are taking notice.

"There are lots of challenges around disruption, and there are challenges for us as a city as well as for taxi drivers," London's deputy mayor Kit Malthouse told CNET today. "[In London] we have a set of rules carefully constructed over the last 200 years by which the city operates, and those rules have been designed to minimise conflict so we can all get along together and industries can prosper.

"Some of these companies that are coming along, like AirBnB and Uber, are calling into question those long-standing and settled regulatory environments," explains Malthouse. "It's a challenge for us as a city, and what the taxi drivers are doing is highlighting that. They're saying, 'You can't have it both ways -- if Uber come along and operate without regulation, then we should be able to compete without regulation or they should have the same regulations.' That's a fair question which we as a city are going to have to tackle."

The controversy in London is around the definition of what counts as a meter. Only taxis, the drivers of which must be individually licensed at their own expense, can use a meter to determine a fare. Other vehicles, like minicabs and limos, are run through licensed private hire companies and set fares without a meter.

Taxi drivers argue that the app used by Uber drivers on their smartphones is essentially a meter, as it uses GPS to measure the time and distance of a journey and organise payment accordingly. TfL disagrees, but in light of growing discontent, the transport body is referring the problem to the courts for a definitive binding ruling one way or the other.

"The rapid pace at which smart phone based technology has been developing in recent years has led to a need for clarity about what is required in order for apps to comply with the regulatory framework in London," TfL says.

Should the courts rule that Uber is breaking the rules, it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the app. Uber has a history of adjusting its service to comply with the rules, and if it's ruled that the driver's app is a problem Uber could easily alter the app.

Although it has given Uber the green light to operate in London, TfL adds that it "remains concerned about certain technical aspects of Uber's operating model", which it is discussing with the company. At the time of writing, TfL was unavailable to expand on what those technical aspects might be.

Uber was unavailable to comment, but earlier this week defended its practises with a statement arguing, "We are bringing competition to an industry that hasn't evolved in years."

Luke Westaway contributed to this report.