NEVER again! Gatwick airport. Midnight. Exhausted kids with school the next day. And… NO sign of the cab I’d pre-booked two weeks earlier.

That was last Summer.

Last week, having touched down again at Gatwick en famille I turned on the phone to find a reassuring text telling me the cab was waiting outside. Clean. Courteous. Smooth.

I’d booked the cab from the hotel, just hours before leaving for the airport with just a few taps on a mobile app over the hotel’s free WIFI. No phone charges. Quick and easy. (I couldn’t quite believe how easy it was until I got a confirmation email)

London 1985 to 2013

I’ve lived in London since the mid-1980s and until recently getting a cab has always been stressful:

… either you can’t find one (outside zone 1 or after 11pm), or they don’t show up (mini-cabs), and when they do they’re either too late (mini-cabs), or filthy (mini-cabs) or expensive (black cabs).

London 2014

Want a black cab but none in sight? Don’t fancy hanging on street corners for hours in the rain? The Hailo taxi app tells you how many minutes away the nearest black cab is and lets you book one in a few taps. Backed by Sir Richard Branson and a slew of VCs, Hailo has just been slated as the UK’s fastest growing tech startup.

Want to impress a client or round-off a special date? Summon a sleek limo with the Uber app. San Francisco based Uber entered London in 2012 and now offer lower-cost UberX cars as an alternative to their limos. Uber operates in 70 cities around the world, has raised $360m and is valued at $3.6b.

Need to get to the airport for 5am? Book a big clean Addison Lee car with tons of space for luggage. Again, all with a few taps on your phone.

Happy to take a chance on a mini-cab that should be cheaper than a limo or black cab? Get tapping on the Kabbee app. They claim to cover 70 mini-cab fleets across London.

All these apps track your car on a map on your phone as it draws closer, and send you helpful text messages to confirm your car’s registration number and the driver’s mobile phone number. No cash? No problem, pay seamlessly by card.

With all these companies, the drivers are self-employed and take a percentage of the fares they earn.

‘Old’ Europe Fights Back

While London is enjoying a perfect storm of innovation and competition, other parts of Europe are putting up a fight.

On 1 January a regulation came into effect in Paris to force so-called “voitures de tourisme avec chauffeurs” (as opposed to licensed taxis) to have to wait 15 minutes from the time of booking before picking-up their customers! Meanwhile, the FT have reported that striking licensed taxi drivers have physically attacked Uber drivers and riders. Not cool.

A Brussels court have banned Uber, and drivers caught carrying private passengers will be fined 10,000 euros. Neelie Kroes, the EU’s digital commissioner, called the court’s decision “crazy” and “outrageous” and has blogged her anger.

Meanwhile things are looking grim in Berlin too as its taxi association is now challenging the legality of Uber and other app-based cab services.

Resistance is futile

As Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen said back in 2011:

Uber is software eats taxis. It’s almost entirely a smartphone-based application bringing town cars to you…. It’s a killer experience.

Outside Silicon Valley (and Tech City) nobody likes change. It’s understandable that some taxi drivers feel threatened by these new-fangled ways of doing things.

And yet, thousands of drivers are embracing these new business models as an entrepreneurial opportunity to take control of their lives: watch an Uber driver talk about his experience.

Ultimately, innovation and fair competition offer the best hope for all of us.

What next?

In the short-term it’ll be fascinating to see what happens next in Europe and elsewhere as the ‘old’ world tries to resist being eaten by software.

Meanwhile, Lyft connects drivers’ personal cars with others who want a … lift. Already in 30 US cities, Lyft is now ready for international take-off.

With Google investing £258m into Uber the logical conclusion of all this is for fully automated self-driving taxis summoned via an invisible reincarnation of Google Glass.

Perhaps we’ll all become modern-day Queen Victorias with robot drivers at our beck and call. As the old-saying goes, “Home James, and don’t spare the horses.

Photo credit: William Creswell

Update (23 April 2014): Uber launch in Beijing, their 100th city