UbiCabs drives headlong into London taxi battle

London’s increasingly competitive taxi app space has a new player in the form of UbiCabs, a booking service that wants to grab a significant share of the British capital’s lucrative transport market.

Based around apps for Android (s GOOG) and iOS (s AAPL), as well as a web-based interface, Ubi does a similar job to many other taxi apps — it lets you specify a pick-up point, a drop-off, schedule your service, compare prices and (when you’re happy) book a ride. The service has been working with local taxi firms for a while, but with a new update out now it is officially launching itself on Thursday.

Feedback from the public seems strong: reviewers on a variety of app stores say it’s quick and easy to use — both big positives. And when I tried using it this week the service gave me fast and inexpensive options to get across town, suggesting that the booking fees it charges to local cab companies — around 10 percent — aren’t too problematic (what it didn’t say was that central London traffic was snarled up beyond repair thanks to the Queen.)

But even with a smooth app and good relationships with suppliers, it’s going to face some stiff competition.

London’s taxi market is a complex thing, with several segments that overlap with each other. The iconic black cabs — metered, costly, reliable — compete with a range of high-end private hire vehicles and lower end minicabs. And all of these different segments have a queue of companies and entrepreneurs trying to disrupt them and bring users

UbiCabs is focused on the minicab market, but the broad Venn diagram of options available to Londoners means that in various ways it’s competing for mindshare with the likes of Hailo, which scored $17 million of funding just over a month ago, the Israel-based Get Taxi, price comparison service Kabbee and many more. And, of course, the specter of Uber, which is looking to launch in London in the not-too-distant future, looms large as well.

In order to tackle that level of rivalry, the team are relying on their sales chutzpah, as well as their credentials. The founders are former Googler Jay Patel; Lorenzo Caffarri, a logistics tech expert whose background includes French retail giant Carrefour; and Prem Sharma, formerly of customer experience startup Fizzback, which sold last year for $80 million.

The trio developed the idea while getting their MBAs at the London Business School, and subsequently raised angel investment from fellow alumni Sean Phelan (Multimap, bought by Microsoft (s MSFT) in 2007) and Joe Bitran (Travelhire).

Phelan, who sits on the company’s board, told me that he sees Ubi as part of a continuum of booking services that stretches back to the first airline reservations systems in the 1940s and 1950s — and has slowly spread through into markets like travel and restaurants: all of which achieve efficiency and make booking faster and easier.

And while that efficiency is useful for letting customers find the best deals, it also has significant benefits for taxi companies — reducing the amount of idle time for drivers, making bookings more solid, and allowing them to plan their dispatching.

“The reduction in fear, uncertainty and doubt that it brings to the passengers and also the drivers is really substantial,” said Phelan. “Taxis spend maybe 55 percent of their time idling or without a fare. It’s a bit of a no-brainer that this situation can be improved.”

What next? The company is working on Windows Phone and BlackBerry apps, and building features to help people share their journeys on Facebook — great for lone travellers to signal to their friends and family that their late-night journey home is a safe one.

More to the point, there’s growth. Phelan suggested that although the company was under no financial pressure, it would be looking for a significant series A round in the future to help it scale up. UbiCabs is already running in other British cities on a limited basis, and Phelan said the ambition was to create a joined-up service across Europe that can work for all users, wherever they are.

“I’m a keen sailor,” said Phelan. “I’m taking my boat through the Mediterranean. When we’re in a new place, all the time, it’s always the same hassle of getting a taxi. I would like to be able to arrive in my boat in some little village in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Spain — I want to be able to anchor off a beach, go ashore, and click to book and get a confirmation that a taxi is on the way. And it happens.”