UK’s High Court this week will issue a ruling about whether Uber’s driver app can legally be classed as a taximeter or not.
Black cabs say the Uber smartphone app is illegal because it calculates fares like a meter. By law, only black cabs can have meters installed.
Here’s the weird thing about the case: Transport for London, the organisation that regulates things like black cabs and the London Underground, has already issued a decision on the taximeter case. It said that Uber’s app is perfectly fine and legal. But that’s not good enough for London’s black cabs.
TfL admits in its initial ruling on the taximeter issue that there simply aren’t enough laws and regulations to help it decide how to deal with Uber.
“We have always accepted the law is untested,” TfL wrote. “We decided it would be appropriate to invite the High Court to issue a declaration as to the correct interpretation of the law.”
Basically TfL is admitting that it doesn’t know how to deal with Uber because the country’s existing laws and regulations aren’t up-to-date. Elsewhere in the letter it goes even further: “The legislation has not kept pace with advances in technology.”
Here’s what the taximeter case is all about: A taximeter is a little box in a taxi that calculates the fare. Black cabs can have the boxes fitted, but it’s illegal for private hire vehicles to use them. Uber drivers in London all need to drive private hire vehicles, so they shouldn’t be using taximeters. That means that the black cabs and Uber have gone to court to try to define exactly what a taximeter is.
This is the most comprehensive description of what a taximeter is, via the Measuring Instruments (Taximeters) Regulations 2006:
A device that works together with a signal generator to make a measuring instrument; with the device measuring duration, calculating distance on the basis of a signal delivered by the distance signal generator; and calculating and displaying the fare to be paid for a trip on the basis of the calculated distance or the measured duration of the trip, or both.
It’s a box that measures how long the ride takes, basically. So is the Uber app a taximeter? Obviously it’s not a specialist device like the black cabs use, but does the driver’s phone become a taximeter when it has the app running? That’s what the High Court is going to decide tomorrow.
Taxi drivers say that Uber’s app is a taximeter because it’s a device inside the car that works out how long the trip lasts. Simple, right? But Uber disagrees. It says that its app has no actual connection to the vehicle, and any fare calculations take place on an Uber server and are transmitted to the phone.
TfL agreed with Uber in its ruling, and said that the driver phones didn’t count as a taximeter because the fares were sent to it from elsewhere:
Here’s another paragraph from TfL supporting Uber:
TfL’s view is that smartphones that transmit location information (based on GPS data) between vehicles and operators, have no operational connection with the vehicles, and receive information about fares which are calculated remotely from the vehicle, are not taximeters within the meaning of the legislation (section 11 of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998).
Another letter sent by TfL in March goes into even more depth. It says that TfL didn’t rule that Uber driver phones count as taximeters because cars aren’t physically “equipped” with taximeters. Because there’s no physical link between the car, its engine, and the device, it can’t count as being operationally linked. That’s how in-depth this case has gotten.
This High Court case highlights a big issue that keeps happening with Uber: Countries simply don’t have up-to-date laws when it comes to taxis. TfL has already said Uber is acting within the law, but it can’t defend that judgement because our laws are outdated. The High Court judgement could do one of two things: It could solidify TfL’s ruling and make the UK’s laws clear when it comes to ridesharing apps, or it could rule against TfL, and make it even more confusing for regulators in the future.