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App gap flap: New York's e-cabbies FOILED AGAIN

Emergency injunction halts electronic hailing

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Hipsters hoping to hail a yellow cab with their smartphone app are going to be disappointed again as a last-minute injunction has limited the deployment of e-hailing taxicab apps Uber and Hailo in the Big Apple.

The deployment was nominally a trial, but few thought it wouldn't foreshadow a launch which would see Uber and Hailo (at least) offering smartphone applications to hail yellow cabs across the city - those cabs who've signed up that is - but at the last minute, an injunction from a consortium of vested interests has put the brakes back on again.

Those vested interests, including The Livery Roundtable, Black Car Assistance Corp and various other car-hire companies, have been fighting to keep Uber and its ilk off the New York streets for years, dredging up all sorts of arguments about racism and ageism while firmly believing that things are fine just the way they are.

Most cities, those who value their private-hire cars, require drivers hawking their services in the street to be licensed by a governmental body. London, which serves as an archetype, also requires hailed cabs to be black, absurdly robust, and tall enough for a six-foot man to keep his top hat on.

Private hire companies, or minicabs as they're termed in Blighty, are another matter entirely - in many cities they're all but unregulated. Indeed, the London cabbies fought against minicab regulation as they had the (often justified) fear that it would, er, drive customers away from licensed minicabs and into their vehicles instead.

But really, it’s the ability to hail from the curb which really distinguishes a taxi from a minicab. However, give customers a mobile phone and they can call a minicab from the curb. Replace that call with a smartphone app and one has the Uber/Helio business model in a nutshell, along with the principal arguments against it.

In London, Uber sublets to minicabs - posh minicabs with Wi-Fi, televisions and black upholstery with a price to match - but minicabs none the less. But in New York, the company wants to open the scheme to the iconic yellow cabs in exchange for a cut of the fare.

Where Uber operates with existing cabs it only charges the metered fare, plus 20 per cent gratuity naturally ("Being Uber means there is no need to tip" says the company, prior to noting that detail), but it collects the money direct from the passenger's credit card and pays the drivers off later, having deducted its margin.

Challenging the New York launch, the incumbent operators claimed smartphone-based services would permit drivers to reject hails from places they didn't want to go, or from people with foreign-looking names. NY Cabs, like their London brethren, aren't allowed to reject a fare but anyone who's tried to get south of the river after midnight will know how flexible that rule is - in London at least.

The existing operators also argued that an underclass without smartphones will be unable to travel once every yellow cab is busy answering an electronic summons.

But Uber and its ilk are likely unstoppable, and the latest injunction is little more than a hiccup on the way to the day when waving one's arm in the street is as redundant as stepping into a phone box or sending a fax - for better or for worse. ®

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