Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: Uber Was the Ugly Snowplough That Cleared the Path but Its Dominance Is Bound to Fade

Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: Uber Was the Ugly Snowplough That Cleared the Path but Its Dominance Is Bound to Fade

Article excerpt

An Uber insider tells me not to write off the ride-hailing giant too soon, because it's a very smart company for all its faults -- and because the numbers of drivers and users for whom it is part of daily life will make it difficult for Transport for London to uphold its licence withdrawal on appeal, so long as Uber makes gestures of humility. But the moral of the story, says my source, is that as a 'tech disrupter' invading a regulated sector, the company created by Travis Kalanick 'relished the fight with governments and entrenched interests far more than was normal or reasonable', rather than seeking to be part of the urban fabric through collaboration or partnership.

Barriers to entry in ride-hailing are not high, because the software required is not so hard to replicate and there are always plenty of willing drivers. It took an ugly Uber to break through, like a snowplough on steroids, but over time its market share is bound to shrink. The next winners in the ride-hailing game will be those (more like its Californian rival Lyft, now reportedly talking to TfL) that promote themselves as better and kindlier citizens. Beyond that, however, science fiction beckons...

My man in the motor trade was enjoying the hospitality at the Frankfurt Motor Show when Uber's news broke, and rang from a table-dancing club to give me his views. He says the buzz at the show is no longer about sleek models like the plug-in BMW i8 sports hybrid he came home with a couple of years ago, but about advancing technology in driverless navigation and battery power. He reckons that between five and ten years hence, the winners of the third stage of the ride-hailing race -- whether Uber is among them, and whatever their marketing image -- will be dehumanised operators of app-controlled fleets of driverless electric vehicles. Banks and investors will jump in as owners or lessors of the fleets, no doubt through impenetrable pyramids of offshore companies. And one day it will all come to grief in a driverless financial crash.

While we're on this motoring theme, I wave my hat to billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe, who has announced that he's about to invest £600 million in the development of a British-built all-terrain vehicle to succeed the Land Rover Defender, which ceased production last year -- and compete with the Toyota Land Cruiser, now the favoured transport of warlords and aid workers in inaccessible territories.

Lancashire-born Ratcliffe built a privately owned petrochemical conglomerate, Ineos, by buying unwanted subsidiaries from BP and other industrial groups. Latterly he spends more time in Switzerland and on his yachts than in Britain, where his willingness to confront unions at Ineos's Grangemouth refinery made him a bogeyman for the left while his Eurosceptic bluntness put him out of tune with the business establishment. Now -- unless Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover fights back to stop him -- he sees his car venture as a route to creating 10,000 jobs, helping arrest the decline in UK manufacturing and creating a rugged new symbol of British self-sufficiency around the world. …

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