Having digested Sadiq Khan’s 27-point plan to meddle in the taxi and private hire market, one top Uber official yesterday moaned “so much for being the most pro-business mayor in London’s history”.
Uber’s frustration is understandable. Not only is the firm already battling Transport for London over proposed regulatory changes (some of which are just plain absurd) but now the mayor wades in with an additional list of reforms that bears more than a small resemblance to the wish-list of policies outlined in the manifesto of the cabbies’ union, the LTDA.
Khan wants private hire drivers (for which read Uber drivers) to sit a written English language test (a burden that won't be necessary for cab drivers) to undergo an ‘advanced driving test’ and to fork out for full commercial insurance even for periods when drivers aren’t using their vehicle for work.
Taken together, Uber says the mayor is discriminating against them in favour of black cabs. In the same document that outlines Khan’s vision of a heavily regulated private hire market, he seeks to make life easier for the incumbent cabbies by allowing more access to bus lanes and through a package of taxpayer-backed financial support.
For as long as Uber drivers have been operating in the capital, an argument has raged about the role of market forces, competition, consumer choice and innovation. Khan’s latest intervention suggests the issue is as far from being settled as it ever has been.
However, a spectre lurks on the horizon that will make the debate about language tests seem laughably parochial. Yes, driverless cars are coming – and faster than you think. The Gateway Project is currently testing automated transport in Greenwich, describing the technology as “probably the most significant change in transport that we’ve seen since the transition from horse drawn carriages to motorised vehicles.”
Driverless taxis already roam the streets of Singapore while Uber is trialling them in Pittsburgh. Car manufacturers and tech-giants alike are racing to perfect the technology. It’s highly unlikely that social and political attitudes will move as quickly as the tech, but one thing’s for sure: automation will soon be on City Hall’s agenda, whether Khan likes it or not.