Black taxis challenge U.S. car service Uber for streets of London

Jun 06 2014, 23:12 IST
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Uber is being targeted because of its success and out of fear of its technological strength. Uber is being targeted because of its success and out of fear of its technological strength.
SummaryThe drivers of black taxis say Uber, backed by investors such as Goldman Sachs and Google, is being used as a taximeter.

They have been the kings of the British capital's roads for over a century but now the often opinionated drivers of London's iconic black taxi cabs are battling a high-technology rival that threatens their dominance.

In their sights is Uber Technologies Inc., a San Francisco-based company whose application lets people summon rides at the touch of a smartphone button and uses satellite navigation to calculate the distance for fares.

The drivers of black taxis say Uber, backed by investors such as Goldman Sachs and Google, is being used as a taximeter and thus contravenes a 1998 British law reserving the right to use a meter for licensed black taxis.

Uber says the application used by their drivers complies with all local regulations and that they are being targeted because of their success in winning customers.

A variety of apps are available for summoning both black cabs - bulbous, purpose-built vehicles which offer a roomier passenger compartment than most normal cars - and unmetered private-hire taxis known as minicabs.

But the power of Uber and the growing popularity of its app have so rattled the black cab drivers that they have pushed London's transport regulator to ask the High Court to rule on the legality of such applications.

They also plan to converge near Trafalgar Square on June 11 for a protest that could paralyse central London, following strikes and other actions by drivers in cities such as Paris and Milan.

"We understand it's a competitive market place, but they're not playing by the rules," Jim Thompson, a taxi driver of 30 years, told Reuters during a coffee and cigarette break in the financial district. "We're fighting for our livelihoods here. No one's going to take it lying down."

Since Uber's foundation in 2009 by two U.S. technology entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, the darling of Silicon Valley has entered over 70 cities, expanding from California to Washington, Tokyo and now London.

Colleagues in the U.S. capital are suffering, said Thompson. "I was over in Washington last year and it slaughtered them," he said. "You just can't compete."

Behind the debate over what constitutes a taximeter, Uber has touched a raw nerve in London because it brings home the threat to one of the city's most visible trades from technological advances.

To win the coveted green badge giving the right to drive a black taxi, drivers have to study for up to five years to pass the "the Knowledge". This

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