Is Uber About To Have Its 'Uber Moment'?

It started out as big, bold and brash -- the company that was about to tear up the taxi rule book -- but Uber will today enter Westminster Magistrates' Court in a meeker, more conciliatory mood. It's pretty much getting on for last chance saloon for the app that has angered London's black cab driving community as well as the regulator, the GMB union, Transport for London (TfL) and the capital's mayor, Sadiq Khan. That's quite a few toes to be treading on.

Each group has its reason to want Uber banned. Black cab drivers rightly point out that they have taken years to gain "the knowledge" required to be a driver, and a member of the general public with an app and a car is no substitute. The unions believe Uber drivers are not treated well and won a landmark case in which a judge ruled its app users should be considered employees and not self-employed. This means their hours should be regulated, and crucially, they should be given holiday and sick pay.

As for TfL and the Mayor, they pretty much came to personify the reason that unites all sides against Uber -- passenger safety. Here Uber really didn't have a leg to stand on. It turns out that the vetting procedure was not up to scratch, and reporting of crimes left a lot to be desired. 

Then there was the leak of customer data and stories of a parallel version of Uber that appeared for people the company suspected were working for regulators, showing them only the drivers and cars the firm wanted them to see.

Today, then, it's going to be a contrite Uber that walks in to court. It could well be a lesson the US tech giants in how to handle regulatory pressure. Regular readers of this column will know there is a deep suspicion of the US tech giants who give a great sales patter but end up sucking money out of the UK economy via accountancy methods that makes Brits feel short-changed.

Instead of complaining, Uber has revised its operations. Drivers will be limited to the areas where they hold a private hire licence, and they are now being checked more thoroughly by a new company which TfL is believed to trust. It's important because, as the BBC points out, many media outlets have referred to a leaked memo which revealed Uber drivers have been accused of more than a thousand 'Category A' offences, including sexual assault, stalking and dangerous driving.

So now Uber is promising to reveal reports of serious misconduct straight to the police and software is in place to make sure they take rest breaks. Drivers must now be treated as employed, with all the worker rights that status brings. 

It sounds to me like Uber has now been limited to fighting the black cab drivers a little less while squaring up to the private hire (mini cab) industry a little more. Employed drivers limited to pick-ups in the areas of London they hold a licence for is a very different proposition to a free-roaming black cab.

So will be very interesting to see what happens today and over the next couple of days in court. The most telling aspect for me is Uber is no longer seeking a five-year licence but has said an 18-month agreement will do. In short, it knows it has had to change and is acknowledging that it is still on probation. 

On the other hand, we have the LTDA (the black cab trade body) and its campaign against Uber, called The Real Cost of Uber, which claims the company avoids GBP20m a year in UK tax and draws a huge question mark over what it does with users' data and how safely it is stored. It's interesting to note that the association is focussing on passenger and moral issues over and above any competition concerns it may have talked more prominently about in the past.

We'll find out later this week whose side the judge favours. If Uber wins, it will be only for an 18-month period, rather than five years, and it will only be after it has agreed to report incidents to the police and made new, better arrangements for criminal and medical background checks on its drivers. 

That still leaves major question marks over paying tax and handling our data, although that is, after all, rather familiar territory for a US tech giant to be in.

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