The ride-hailing app, thought to serve some 3.5 million passengers in London via 40,000 drivers, is defending its right to operate in its largest European market after losing its licence in September after Transport for London concluded it was “not fit and proper” to operate in the capital.
TfL’s shock move last year came amid concerns over Uber’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences, how driver’s medical certificates are obtained, how criminal record checks are carried out – and its use of technology, which allegedly helps it evade law enforcement officials.
Transport for London (TfL) said it took the decision on the grounds of “public safety and security implications”, though more than 800,000 people signed an online petition launched by Uber calling for the decision to be reversed.
It was just one of many blows to Uber in the past year, as a stream of executives left amid controversies involving allegations of sexual harassment and issues surrounding data privacy and business practices.
Uber, whose backers include Goldman Sachs and BlackRock and which is valued at over $70bn, will make its case against the decision at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in a hearing that is expected to last several days.
Court documents that form part of the company’s appeal have revealed that Uber has investigated more than 2,500 drivers in London for alleged offences including sex assaults, stalking and dangerous driving.
The figures also show that at least 800 potential drivers have had medical and sight tests by Uber over Skype.
Earlier this year, in a bid to placate TfL, Uber announced a series of changes to its business model – including the proactive reporting of serious incidents to London’s police. The changes also include plans to give customers more access to driver information, including the licensing authority and private hire number of their driver.
A freedom of information request revealed that London’s Transport Commissioner Mike Brown met the new Uber boss, Dara Khosrowshahi, in both October and January, though no information about the meetings has been released.
What changes has Uber made?
• Speaking to the Police: The firm said it will directly pass police information about any serious incidents reported by its customers. It said it will also do so if one of its drivers is the victim of a serious crime and wants the company to act on their behalf.
• A new complaints procedure: Additionally, it said it is conducting a review of all previous serious complaints to ensure there are no outstanding issues. A 24-hour support line for both drivers and customers to handle any issues around a journey was also announced.
• English tests: It has dropped its appeal against English language tests for its drivers in London. Uber had said it supports spoken English skills, but claimed the exam – introduced by TfL – would have gone beyond requirements for British citizenship, as well as rules governing public sector workers.
• App redesign: This month the company announced a “complete redesign” of the app used by its drivers, saying it wants to improve the experience for those who use it and it was part of plans to correct “missteps of the past”. The new app will feature an Earnings Tracker at the top of the screen, which will show drivers their earnings on their last trip, which it said will make it easier to track process towards an earnings goal.
The app will also feature a new Status Bar to showcase updates on market conditions around a driver and opportunities for more trips nearby.
The redesigned app will now also house driver profiles, which Uber says drivers can use to “showcase themselves” and give passengers more information about them.
• Better driver feedback: In February it announced it will launch a new scheme to make it easier for drivers to give feedback via an advisory group established in every city where it operates. Uber said the aim was to give drivers the chance to feed back on a new product or any decisions affecting them.
• A cap on driver hours: In January it announced it will introduce a cap on how many hours its drivers can work, describing it as an “industry first”. The new policy means that a licensed driver on Uber’s app must take an uninterrupted six-hour break after 10 hours of time on a trip with a passenger – or on their way to pick up a passenger after confirming a trip request.
Drivers who do not take a long enough break will not be able to log into the app and take trips. Uber said the new policy was introduced across the UK to help “enhance driver and passenger safety”.
• Cleaner vehicles: In September Uber announced it would add a surcharge to its fares to help pay for cleaner vehicles. It said all vehicles operating standard uberX journeys in London will be hybrid or fully electric by the end of 2019. It is hoping to reach the same standard across the rest of the UK by 2022.
Why did Uber lose its licence?
In August last year, a Metropolitan Police inspector claimed Uber was more concerned about its reputation than the safety of its passengers.
The company was accused of failing to report a string of serious crimes, including sexual assaults and an incident in which a driver produced what was thought to be pepper spray during a road-rage argument.
In 2016, the Met Police were made aware of six sexual assaults, two public order offences and one assault reported by Uber to TfL.
Uber subsequently told The Sunday Times the initial refusal to help was due to a misunderstanding, and said the pepper spray mentioned had actually been a spray to identify criminals, which was legal.
In November, Uber was urged to contact the 2.7 million UK users of its app who were affected by a mass data breach “as soon as possible” after it was found the firm had tried to conceal the matter.
Hackers obtained personal details of 57 million customers and drivers worldwide, but it was the first time the impact on the UK has been disclosed.
The culprits obtained people’s names, email addresses and mobile phone numbers, the taxi-hailing firm said, but third-party investigators have found no indication that financial details, journey histories and dates of birth were downloaded, it claimed.
Reuters reported in December that a 20-year-old man was behind the breach, and that he was paid by Uber to destroy the data. The firm later apologised for how it handled the breach.
That same month, Uber lost an employment case in the UK over the rights of employees, with the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) rejecting Uber’s argument over the status of drivers.
Unions argued drivers should be classified as “workers” rather than being self-employed, which would entitle them to rights such as holiday pay. Uber, which lost a court battle when two drivers argued they were employees, is appealing against that ruling.