Transport for London ( or TFL, the local government agency that regulates transportation in the city) announced this week that they are suspending Uber’s license to operate in the city. At first glance, this headline didn’t strike me as being all that surprising because London has been trying to shut down Uber for years. TFL issued a ban on the service in 2018, but it was overturned by a judge. This is largely driven by objections from the Black Limo drivers, who have a surprising amount of influence. Of course, with more than 3.6 million regular Uber users in the city and roughly 45,000 drivers, the city officials have to be careful how they try to shut them down.

But unlike previous efforts tied primarily to administrative arguments, TFL may have a point this time. The safety concerns they are citing in making this decision, if verified, actually do sound serious. (NBC News)

A key issue identified was that a change to the ride-hailing company’s systems allowed unauthorized drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.

“This allowed them to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips, putting passenger safety and security at risk,” the transport authority said in a statement.

This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, Transport for London said Monday.

So people who weren’t even approved drivers could supposedly upload their own photos to other Uber drivers’ accounts and then pick up fares pretending to be them? A second glitch in the software allowed drivers who had been suspended to simply create a new account and continue picking up riders.

Does Uber use a totally different set of software in Europe? I was doing some searching and didn’t find anything about this sort of bug in the app for American drivers. And if it’s something that glaring and open to abuse, you’d think we’d have heard about it by now.

At the same time, I find myself wondering how TFL came up with such exact figures, such as precisely how many trips were booked using these glitches. As far as I know, Uber doesn’t release their data in such a granular fashion, but I suppose it’s possible that they were forced to do it in London as a condition for being allowed to operate.

In their response, Uber didn’t say much about those questions. They simply called the decision “extraordinarily wrong” and promised to appeal it. They also said they would continue operating while the appeal took place. But until we know how real the accusations are, I’ll concede that TFL has a point. If there are drivers without licenses, insurance or even valid Uber accounts hacking the system and picking up riders, passengers would have virtually no way of knowing that when their car arrives. And that’s an inexcusable safety concern.