Uber taxi app giant to shake up cab industry in Belfast
Controversial multi-billion dollar mobile US taxi-booking app Uber is eyeing up Belfast as one of its next targets.
And it's likely to face stiff competition from Northern Ireland's two big taxi firms - Value Cabs and FonaCab.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Jo Bertram - Uber's general manager for the UK and Ireland - said: "We'd definitely love to come to Belfast one of these days."
It aims to be in every major city in Europe in the next couple of years.
Uber is a taxi-booking app for mobile phones which allows customers to locate the nearest cab using GPS, before dispatching it.
The service currently operates in Dublin and across the UK, with drivers fully licensed under each individual area's laws.
They can then choose their own hours, with Uber taking 20% of the total fare.
It's already in most major cities in the UK, and its global business is now valued at £26bn.
But the boss of Northern Ireland's largest taxi firm Value Cabs has said the company could find it difficult to set up in Belfast, having to operate around the existing legislation.
And Stephen McCausland said he had no concerns about any competition from the global taxi app giant.
Uber's expansion into Europe caused some controversy - prompting large protests from taxi drivers in cities such as London and Milan, as well as legal tussles in some areas.
Ms Bertram of Uber said the company brought "competition to an industry which hasn't been shaken up in years".
"We'd like to be in every major city - Belfast is definitely a major city in the region, so we would definitely love to come there one of these days," she said.
"We have a local team in each city, and we would then figure out the right services needed in that city." And she said the company would follow all licensing laws as required.
"We've looked at all major UK and Ireland cities. We would obviously follow the due licensing process - it depends on what the specific requirements are.
"One of the requirements is that it's a level playing field - so as long as we meet the requirements of the process, I don't see there is any reason why we wouldn't get a licence.
"Competition is good for the user, and for the driver - with more options for people who want to drive." But she could not confirm any details of when Uber could expand into the Belfast market. Uber has yet to make any application to the Department of the Environment.
A spokesman for the department said: "Without knowing precisely how they may intend to work in Northern Ireland, it is difficult to determine if or how the firm could operate within the existing legal environment."
Value Cabs director Mr McCausland said: "I would treat them as any other competition - they would have to be involved, and work within the law."
Value Cabs operates around 600 taxis in Belfast, while FonaCab, operated by Mr McCausland's cousin William, has some 500 vehicles in the city. Its drivers pay their employers a depot fee, but they do not charge a commission on each fare.
Uber works on a cashless system - with its users signing up with a credit card - charged for each journey automatically on arrival at their destination.
There has been opposition to Uber's use of its own metering technology, arguing that government-regulated taxi meters are the only appropriate method of calculating fairs. But the taxi regulator in the Republic has ruled out similar concerns.
Uber carried out a soft launch in Dublin back in January 2014, and now claims to have tens of thousands of users registered to use the service across iPhone and Android platforms.