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Uber hopes to win over London cabbies. Will it work?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You can get an Uber in about 70 countries. The ride-hailing app and its rivals have changed the way many of us get around, but do not let London cabbies hear you say that. Drivers of the city's famous black cabs have long led a resistance to Uber. Now, the company is launching a new campaign aimed at winning them over. We sent NPR's London correspondent Lauren Frayer to see whether it'll work.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It feels like Uber is everywhere - in Japan...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Uber taxi.

FRAYER: ...In Latin America...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Uber One - (speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: ...In India...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Uber - (non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...And here in London, where the company says it has about 50,000 drivers - making this its biggest market behind New York. But utter that word, Uber, within earshot of a taxi stand here...

LOUIS SERRA: Oh, Uber. We don't care about them.

FRAYER: You don't care.

SERRA: No, I don't care. We don't...

CHRIS HUGHES: They don't know what they're doing. They don't know where they're going, and half of them are probably not insured.

DANIEL FREDERICK: When people hail down, they want you to be turning around and going in the right direction within the first 10, 20 seconds. The sat-nav can't do that.

FRAYER: That's Louis Serra, Chris Hughes and Daniel Frederick, three of the nearly 18,000 drivers of London's black cabs - bulbous, retro vehicles also known as hackney carriages. These professionals consider themselves among the last obstacles to Uber's global domination.

FREDERICK: Yeah, we are the quality top line because we've done the knowledge of London, and...

FRAYER: The world-famous knowledge of London is what Frederick is talking about there. First introduced in 1865, The Knowledge is an encyclopedic test of 25,000 London streets and 20,000 landmarks, which you've got to memorize to get a taxi license here. It takes an average of 3 or 4 years, and there's still a 70% fail rate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Right, Kensington Park Road; forward, Pembridge Road; left, Notting Hill Gate; right, Palace Gardens Terrace...

FRAYER: In a classroom behind London's Euston station, aspiring cabbies memorize routes, and they pore over giant laminated street maps on easels.

If I say the word Uber in this room, are people going to gasp? Or...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Booing).

FRAYER: There's a boo over there. Yeah.

But it's not like they're Luddites, says Gert Kretov, who runs this cram school for The Knowledge.

GERT KRETOV: We're not threatened by technology. We use technology on The Knowledge. We have apps to help you study - digital maps, everything like that.

FRAYER: Kretov hates Uber because he says it takes too much commission - upwards of 25% - from drivers. For years, Uber cut into his enrollment, but students are coming back, he says.

KRETOV: Technology and the brainpower - brain is always winning. There is nothing like a knowledgeable cab driver. And if it's constant road closures, that driver will quickly figure out the best solution. That's why The Knowledge is important - quick thinking.

FRAYER: London's taxi unions have staged protests against Uber. Drivers applauded when London's regulator revoked Uber's license a few times over the years. It's since been reinstated, and now Uber is offering them an olive branch - keep your black cabs. Keep your knowledge. But use the app, too - for free, at least for the first six months, starting in 2024.

ANDREW BREM: They just need to download the app, upload some of their basic documentation, and they receive the meter fare.

FRAYER: Andrew Brem is the head of Uber in the U.K., and his message to London cabbies is don't let nostalgia hold you back.

BREM: The Knowledge that the London cab drivers pass - huge respect for that. And the physical vehicles - they're beautiful. So that's all great stuff. But I would say this is absolutely an opportunity for drivers to earn additional fares. They're business people, and they want to be busy.

FRAYER: Uber is already doing this with New York's yellow cabs and with taxis in San Francisco, Paris and Rome. It's made similar offers to London cabbies before but withdrew them for lack of, shall we say, enthusiasm among drivers. The verdict this time, says London cabbie Chris Hughes, is...

HUGHES: Waste of money, waste of money. They can give us double the fares that they're charging. But nobody, nobody - we've seen on Facebook - I think one guy has signed up for it, and he's being chased out of town.

FRAYER: The world's biggest ride-sharing app may have a hard time winning over these British stalwarts.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAE STEPHENS SONG, "IF WE EVER BROKE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.