Saturday, 23 September 2017

London, London, Uber Alles

I read with some interest yesterday that Transport for London (TfL) are not renewing Uber’s license to operate in London. TfL have cited concerns over Uber’s driver screening and background checks, and Uber’s use of ‘Greyball’, a software component designed and built by Uber to bypass all sorts of regulatory mechanisms, including using a phone’s GPS to recognise when the phone is at being used at Apple HQ so that the Apple engineers who review iOS applications won’t see the hidden features that Apple aren’t supposed to know about.

I use Uber a lot. Their service used to be absolutely excellent, and is still pretty good. It’s not as good as it used to be. It takes longer to get a car than it used to, particularly in central London. But, as a passenger (and yes, I know I’m a white male passenger, although some of my Uber experience dates from a period when I did have quite serious mobility issues whilst recovering from a skiing injury), I have found Uber to be a really good service. I’ve used it all over the world — London, Bristol, Brussels, Kyiv, Saint-Petersburg, and as of last night, Minsk. I missed it in Tel Aviv, where it’s been outlawed and everyone uses Gett instead, although Gett in Israel appears to operate exactly the same as Uber does in London so I’m not quite sure what the distinction is.

I’ve had some seriously impressive experiences as an Uber customer. In London, I once left my guitar in the back of an Uber that dropped me home at 4am after a horribly delayed flight. I realised within minutes. I used the app to phone the driver, who immediately turned around and brought it back, and was very taken aback when I insisted on paying him for the extra journey. In Kyiv I’ve used Uber to travel safely from a place I couldn’t pronounce to a place I couldn’t find, in a city where I couldn’t speak the language or even read the alphabet, with a driver who spoke no English, and I’ve done it with absolutely no fear of getting ripped off or robbed.

It’s not all been smooth. In Bristol I once had an Uber driver — sorry, “partner-driver” — who missed the turning four times in a row and then explained, giggling, that he’d never driven a cab before and didn’t know how to use satellite navigation. In London I’ve actually been in an Uber car that was pulled over by the police for speeding.. the driver panicked, drove away, realised what he’d done, thought better of it and reversed down Moorgate, in rush hour traffic, back to where a rather surprised-looking police officer immediately placed him under arrest. In both of those cases I complained, Uber investigated (something they can do really easily, thanks to GPS tracking of exactly what all their vehicles are doing at any moment) and notified me within 24 hours that the drivers in question had been suspended and would not be driving for the company again. I’ve used their app to claim refunds where I was overcharged — but also to reimburse drivers who undercharged me because of technical problems.

Now, here’s the two points I think are really important. One — Uber didn’t actually solve any hard problems. They didn’t invent GPS, or cellular phone networks, or draw their own maps of the world’s major cities. They just waited until exactly the right moment — the moment everyone had GPS, and online payments were easy, and smartphones were cheap enough that it was cost-effective to use them as the basis of a ride-sharing application — and then they pounced. Now don’t get me wrong, they did it incredibly well, and the user experience — particularly in the early days — was absolutely first-class. Usability features like being able to photograph your credit card using your phone camera instead of having to type the number in were a game-changer — the kind of features that people would show off to their friends in the pub just because no-one had ever seen it before. But Uber didn’t solve any hard engineering problems. There’s no PageRank algorithms or Falcon 9 reusable rockets being invented here. Uber’s success is down to absolutely first-class customer experience, aggressive expansion, and their willingness to enter target markets without the slightest consideration for how their service might affect the status quo. And their protestations about the ruling threatening 40,000 jobs is a bit rich given how adamantly they insist that they don’t actually employ any drivers, despite a court ruling to the contrary.

If it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else, which brings me to my second point. The London taxi cab industry was just crying out for somebody to come in and kick seven bells out of it. I’ve lived in London since 2003, and I’ve taken many, many taxis over the years. For all the talk about “The Knowledge”, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to give a black cab driver turn-by-turn directions because they don’t know where I’m going and they’re not allowed to rely on sat-nav. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to ask a cab driver to stop at a cash machine because they don’t take credit cards. I’ve lost track of the number of hours of my life I’ve spent stood on street corners, in the rain, with more luggage than I can possibly carry home on the bus, waiting for the glow of an orange light that might take me home. Or might just ask where I’m going and drive away with a shake of the head and a ‘no, mate’ because my journey isn’t convenient for them.

The alternative, of course, was minicabs. Booked in advance from a reputable operator, they were generally pretty good. Not always, but most of the time they’d show up on time and take you where you wanted to go. Or, at the end of a long night out, you’d wander up to one of Soho’s many illustrious minicab offices, and end up in the back seat of an interesting-smelling Toyota Corolla wondering if the driver was really the person who’d passed all the necessary tests and checks, or one of their cousins who’d borrowed the cab for the night to earn an extra few quid. (On two separate occasions I’ve been offered this as an explanation for a minicab driver not knowing where they’re going…)

A lot of people are very upset about yesterday’s news — a petition to ‘save Uber’ has attracted nearly half a million signatures since the announcement — but in the long term, I don’t think it really matters whether Uber’s license is renewed or not. There’s no way people in London are going to go back to standing on rainy street corners waving their arms at every orange light that goes past. Uber has changed the game. It’s now a legal requirement that black cabs in London accept payment by card — something which even a few years ago was still hugely controversial. And that’s actually really sad, because once upon a time, London taxis had an international reputation for innovation and excellence. The London ‘black cab’ is a global icon, but it’s also an incredibly well-designed vehicle — high-visibility handholds, wheelchair accessible, capable of carrying five passengers and negotiating the narrow tangled streets of one of the world’s oldest cities. London taxis have been regulated since the 17th century. “The Knowledge” — the exam all London black cab drivers are required to pass, generally regarded as one of the hardest examinations of any profession anywhere in the world — was introduced in the 1850s, after visitors travelling to London for the Great Exhibition complained that their hackney-carriage drivers didn’t know where they were going. One of the great joys of visiting London in the days before sat-nav was hailing a cab, giving the driver the name of some obscure pub halfway across the city, and watching as they’d think for one second, nod, and then whisk you there without further hesitation. But in the age of ubiquitous satellite navigation, who cares whether your driver can remember the way from Narrow Street to Penton Place after you’ve had to stand in the rain for fifteen minutes trying to hail a cab? What Uber did — and did incredibly well — is they thought about all the elements of the passenger experience that happen outside the car. Finding a cab. Knowing how much it’s likely to cost. Paying the bill. Recovering lost property. And they made it cheap. They created a user experience that, for the majority of passengers, was easier, cheaper and more convenient than traditional black cabs. It’s no wonder the establishment freaked out.

So what happens now? Maybe Uber win their appeal. Maybe someone else moves into that space. Maybe things get a bit more expensive for passengers — and, frankly, I think they should. I think Uber is too cheap. If you want the luxury of somebody else driving you to your door in a private car, — and for most of us, that IS a luxury — then I believe the person providing that service deserves to make a decent living out of providing it, and one of the most welcome features Uber’s introduced recently is the ability to tip drivers via the app.

Uber has taken a stagnant industry that was in dire need of a kick up the arse, and it’s done it. They’re not the only cab hailing app in the market. Gett, mytaxi (formerly Hailo), Kabbee, private hire firms like Addison Lee — not to mention just phoning a minicab office and asking them to send a car round. In a typical month in London, I’ll use buses, the Tube, national rail services, the Overground, Uber AND black cabs — not to mention a fair bit of walking and cycling. I even have an actual car, which I use about once a month to go to B&Q or IKEA or somewhere. None of them’s perfect, but on the whole, transport in London works pretty well, and I’ve found Uber a really welcome addition to the range of transport services that’s on offer.

But Uber vs TfL is just a tiny taste of what’s coming. I honestly believe that within the next ten years, we’ll be using our smartphones to summon driverless autonomous electric vehicles to take us home after a night out. In all sorts of shapes and sizes, too — after all, why should it take an entire Toyota Prius to transport a 5’2”, 65kg human with a small shoulder bag from Wardour Street to Battersea? We’ll be going to IKEA in a tiny little electric bubble-bike, buying a new kitchen, and taking it home in a driverless van that waits outside whilst we unload it and then burbles off happily into the sunset to pick up the next waiting fare. Never mind the cab wars between the black cab drivers and the minicab drivers — what happens when a robot cab will pick you up anywhere in town and take you home for a quid? A robot cab that doesn’t have a mortgage to pay or kids to feed? That runs on cheap, green energy, that doesn’t get bored or tired or distracted?

There are going to be problems. There are going to be collisions, fatalities, lawsuits, prosecutions, appeals and counter-appeals. And the disruptions will keep coming, faster and faster. Just as Transport for London think they’ve got workable legislation for driverless cars, someone’s going to invent a drone that can fly from Covent Garden to Dulwich carrying a passenger, and whilst they’re busy arguing in court over whether it’s a helicopter or not someone’s gonna shoot one down with a flare pistol and all merry hell’s going to break loose.

What Uber shows us is that technology isn’t going to self-regulate. The digital economy moves too fast for pre-emptive legislation and licensing frameworks. There’s fortunes to made in the months or years between your product hitting the market and the authorities deciding to shut you down. The future of Uber doesn’t depend on getting their TfL license renewed. They’ve been kicked out of entire countries before and it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down. To them this is just a bump in the road. Their future is about being the first company to roll out self-driving cabs, and you can guarantee they’re working, right now, on finding the legislative loopholes in their various target markets that will allow them to launch first and ask questions later.

Black cabs aren’t going away. Buses aren’t going away. Much as I’d love it, they’re not going to decommission all the rolling stock and turn the London Underground network into a giant dodgems track. Technology is going to disrupt, government is going to react — and whilst that model doesn’t always work terribly well, I can’t see any feasible alternative. Engineers are going to solve hard problems. Touch screens, cellular networks, GPS, space travel, battery capacity, biological interfaces, machine learning. Companies like Apple and Google and SpaceX and Tesla are going to put those solutions in our pockets, and in our buildings and on our streets, and companies like Uber and Tinder and AirBnB are going to find ways to turn those solutions into products that you just can’t WAIT to show your friends in the pub.

And, short of the nightmare scenarios my friend Chris has so lovingly documented over on H+Pedia, society will continue. Uber will run surveillance software on your phone that’s a fraction of what the Home Office are doing all day every day, but Greyball isn’t going to cause the downfall of society. Self-driving cars will kill people. Yes, they will. But 3,000 people already die in road traffic accidents every day, and we think that’s normal, and as long as it doesn’t impact our lives directly we just sort of shrug and ignore it and get on with our lives.

I like Uber, and I feel guilty for liking them because I know they do some truly horrible things. I also travel by air, and I eat meat, and I wear leather and I use an iPhone and don’t always recycle. And I used to download MP3s all the time, and feel guilty about it, and then Spotify came along and now I don’t download MP3s any more. And I used to download movies and TV shows, and now I have Amazon Prime and Netflix and I haven’t downloaded a movie in YEARS.

Very few people are extremists. For every militant vegan, there’s someone out hunting their own meat, and a couple of hundred of us who just go with whatever’s convenient. If you’re trying to change the world, ignore the extremists. Don’t outlaw things you think people shouldn’t be doing. Change the world by using technology to deliver compelling alternatives. I want vat-grown burgers and steaks that taste as good as the real thing, and yes, I’ll pay. I want boots and jackets made from synthetic textiles that actually look properly road-worn after a couple of years instead of just falling apart. I want to travel by hypersonic maglev underground train instead of flying. OK, maybe not that last part… I’m writing this from 30,000 feet above the Lithuanian border, the setting sun behind us is catching the wingtips as we soar above an endless sea of cloud, and I’m being reminded how much I love flying. But you could definitely make air travel a LOT more expensive before I stopped doing it completely.

If TfL really want to get rid of Uber, revoking their license isn’t the way to do it. They’ll appeal, you’ll fight, a lot of lawyers will get rich and TfL will either lose and look like an idiot, or win and look like an asshole. How about TfL find the company that’s trying to beat Uber anyway — they’re out there, somewhere — and offer to work with them instead? As Rowland Manthorpe wrote in WIRED yesterday, why don’t we create a socially responsible, employee-owned, ride sharing platform that gives passengers everything Uber does without the institutionalised nastiness and the guilty aftertaste? What ethical transport startup would not jump at the fact to sign up the greatest city in the world as their development partner?

You think the future is about using an iPhone to summon a guy in a Toyota Prius, and the important question is who wrote the app they’re using? Come on, people. This is London calling. We can think a hell of a lot bigger than that.

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