Uber Versus London's Taxi Drivers and the Limits of Tech

A London dispute asks questions of the relative merits of ‘legacy’ and ‘disruptive’ technologies

Is it better to use technology to replace a legacy system with something cheaper or should IT be used to refine a legacy system that has served its purpose for years? One of the primary reasons why IT fails to deliver its benefits is a communications breakdown. The IT industry definitely speaks a different language from the rest of humanity. Normal people might call a spade a spade, whereas an IT consultant might talk in terms of earth transportation capability enhancement paradigms.

One of the biggest departures in language and meaning is derived from the word ‘disruption’. To technology enthusiasts, ‘disruptive technology’ is exciting and its importance far outweighs whatever legacy it is about to replace. ‘Legacy’ is a dirty word for techie enthusiasts.

On the other hand, most people dread disruption. Having control over your own life removed from you (whether you’re at home or at work trying to log into your account) is one of the most stressful encounters you can experience, according to psychologists. If people have a time-honoured way of working and have perfected routines that they can perform quickly and efficiently, they tend not to appreciate the merits of ‘disruptive technology’. People rather like their legacies and their heritage.

It’s these differences of interpretation that are at the heart of a dispute in London between the city’s taxi drivers and a number of ‘disruptive’ technology-based systems that are intended to undercut them.

The latest cause of conflict is being caused by app-based car hire service Uber, which was launched in London in June 2012 and links drivers to passengers. Now London’s black-cab drivers are planning to cause gridlock in the city this summer in a series of protests against Uber.

At the heart of the dispute is a legal interpretation. According to the London Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA), Uber is breaking laws that govern taxi drivers in London. Uber provides the online system that automates the booking of cabs, the processing of the job and the forwarding of that job to the driver. It then takes a 20% cut of the fee. The customer’s contract is with the operator, argues LTDA. In effect that makes Uber the taxi operator and that means it should have a licence.

“We argue that this constitutes the driver plying for hire while operating unlicensed and therefore uninsured,” says McNamara. The terms and conditions listed on Uber’s web site and on its receipts state that the contract is with the driver. However, since Uber does not charge VAT, there is an argument to be made that the driver is the principal. Anyone taking a booking must be licensed, argues LTDA, and besides, Uber drivers are using a computer to receive and accept bookings and calculate the fare. That effectively makes it a taxi meter and under the regulations governed by Transport for London (TfL), the city’s private-hire cars (which is how Uber describes its drivers) are not allowed to have a meter.

TfL, which ultimately presides over the London taxi industry, has not interpreted the laws in the same way as LTDA at the moment.

“We have seen no evidence to suggest that Uber London Ltd are not fit and proper to hold a London PHV [private hire vehicle] operator’s licence but no final decisions have been made whilst Uber’s operating model is still under investigation,” says a TfL spokesperson.

The semantics of whether Uber is legal or not are being discussed at length elsewhere on the web. The rise of cheap minicab systems, which undercut the more expensive licensed drivers of the iconic ‘black cabs’ or ‘Hackney carriages’, illustrates one of the universal dilemmas of technology. Is a new cheaper system necessarily better? How often do we damage the foundations of a great business process by ripping and replacing?

As legacies go, the intelligence system for the taxi component of London’s transport system must have few peers. The Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney-Coachmen in London and “the places adjacent” goes back to Oliver Cromwell’s rule, just after the overthrow of the monarchy. (So in that respect, it could be described as ‘revolutionary’.) The system was approved by Parliament in 1654 to remedy what it described as the "many Inconveniences [that] do daily arise by reason of the late increase and great irregularity of Hackney Coaches and Hackney Coachmen in London, Westminster and the places thereabouts".

Taxi drivers have to pass a test known as The Knowledge, which shows they have memorised 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. On top of this core of knowledge is a system of learning that, to date, no machine will ever match. A computer might be able tell you the shortest route between two points but that ignores all of the variables that affect a journey, such as roadworks, accidents, rush-hour patterns, rain, exhibitions, football matches, demonstrations, popular uprisings, terrorism and hundreds of other conditions. A satnav or Google Maps might tell a driver the shortest route to take in perfect conditions (which would be seven am on a Sunday morning). But for the rest of the week, the taxi driver’s knowledge is superior.

In the year 2000, the reputation of man-made intelligence systems suffered from the fact that their creators never saw the year 2000 coming. That same year, the prestige of human intelligence was given a massive endorsement when scientists at University College London discovered that black cab drivers often had an enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and other animals. Human intelligence, it was demonstrated, was able to adapt and expand in a way that no non-organic computer system has ever got near to achieving.

“Satnavs are a poor substitute for knowledge,” says Dave, a taxi driver waiting for fares in the cab rank at Waterloo Station. “They are great if you are totally lost and have no idea but they use the same route at 3am as they do at 3pm. In the real world, thinking people would rarely do that.”

Another driver pointed out the nuances that human intelligence can deal with whereas a pre-programmed machine cannot.

“London is a hard city to navigate and often taxi passengers do not really know where they are going. They ask for Oxford Street, Notting Hill when they really mean Oxford Road,” says Mike, also at Waterloo. “Get in a cab in the City and ask to be taken ‘down the Blue’ and you will find yourself in Bermondsey. Try asking a satnav to do that.”

Automated systems have data but not the experience or the learning capacity to create the knowledge that saves you time and money, says Rebecca, a customer who reports that the new breed of taxi applications can be a false economy.

“I had a really bad experience with one firm which charged me £30 for a £12 journey. When I called the office the next day they basically said it was for waiting time,”” says Rebecca. “But really the cab was lost. So I was paying for their incompetence!”

The late writer Miles Kington summed up the difference between data systems and real knowledge. “Data tells you that a tomato is a fruit. But knowledge tells you not to put it in a fruit salad.”


Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.