We explain what is Uber, how to use Uber to get cheap taxi rides, and why Uber is controversial.

What is Uber?

Uber is a San Francisco-based company, founded in 2009. It describes itself as a "pick-up" service that connects passengers with vetted private drivers (although how 'vetted' the drivers are is a cause of some consternation). Uber's app is backed by Google, integrated into Google Maps, and available on the major smartphone platforms. It allows customers to order taxis through their smartphone based on their location. They can see who their driver will be, and then track the arrival of their car.

Uber differs from other taxi- or private hire firms in that it simply puts together drivers and customers based on their location and requirements. Fares are set by the user's smartphone tracking their start- and finish location, and the time the journey takes. This according to a set price list set centrally by Uber, and visible to the user before the journey begins. Other advantages include the fact that the user pays via the app, so no cash is required.

Finally, if you and another Uber user wish to make a similar journey at a similar time, you can share the journey and split the cost, without having to go through the social awkwardness of actually conversing with another human and working out the cost. See also: What is the Dark Web?

Where can I use Uber?

Uber operates in 53 countries. In the UK it is available in Leeds, London and Manchester. You can also pick up an Uber cab in Dublin.

How to use Uber to get a cheap cab right now

First of all you need to sign up for the service, either at the Uber.com website, or via the app. You also need to install the Android or iPhone app on a compatible device.

Then, when you need a cab, you tap the app to set up a pickup location. Then you request a ride, and a driver will accept the commission. At this point you simply add in your required destination. If you want you can tap the 'Fare quote' button to find out how much the journey is likely to cost at any point before you get in the cab.

Once you are picked up the destination info is shared with the driver, and you see the route and an estimated time of arrival. When you arrive, payment is taken via the app from the account you set up to work with it. The tip is your own concern.

To share the journey simply choose Split Fare from the app menu once you have set off. Add the other passengers and they'll each pay a small transaction fee, but otherwise all credit cards will be charged equally. And if you want to let your friends know when you will arrice, the 'Share ETA' button allows you to create and send a text message to that effect. And yes, amidst all of this futuristic tech, a text message does seem rather quaint.

From using Uber in London we can say that it is great in principle, and occasionally great in use. But there are caveats. For one thing the app itself isn't brilliantly designed, and is not the most intuitive we have used. And we have found a large difference in the cost of the same journey on different days (albeit at different times, and over longer and shorter durations). But it is certainly true to say that Uber is a brilliant idea, and if you use the app to flag a cab, you will get one. And you won't have to pay cash. Which is pretty much all that matters, on most cab-requiring occasions.

You can also tip Uber drivers in some countries via the app.

Why is Uber controversial?

Honestly, because it has disrupted the taxi- and private hire industries, which have previously been left largely untouched by the power of the internet. Think about the endless reams of newspaper print dedicated to the way traditional media has been changed by online media, or the hand-wringing engendered by the death of high-street stores brought about by online shopping. Then imagine your average hairy-arsed cabbie reacting to his livelihood being threatened by a bunch of software coders from California.

In the summer of 2014 London cab drivers staged a series of demonstrations against Uber. Their complaints are easy to understand and sympathise with, if probably doomed to fail.

To be a licensed taxi driver in most cities you need to be fully vetted. In London - famously - you have to do 'the knowledge'. Detailed training of every street in a city of 8 million people, so that you can always find your way from A to B regardless of where those places are. Licensed taxi drivers also have to use an independently monitored meter to set fares, and record how much money they make. Uber drivers have to do none of this.

The protection afforded to the trained and licensed cabbie in every city in the UK is that only they are allowed to pick up fares from the street. That is the difference between a taxi and a private hire vehice, otherwise known as a minicab. But with Uber, not only is the central pricing mechanism in effect a meter - under the scrutiny only of passenger and Uber - but in effect you can flag one down off the street. You don't need to book an Uber cab in advance, just request one when you are ready to leave. This is in compliance with the private hire legislation, but removes the key competitive advantage of licensed taxi drivers.

So you can see why they are angry. Similar complaints have been made by licenses cabbies around the world.

There are other controversies. In several cases Uber drivers have been accused of behaving badly, even assaulting passengers. The drivers themselves have been unhappy, with reported strikes in New York and San Francisco. There have been suggestions of dirty tricks campaigns against rivals and media outlets, and bad PR rumour stories of prices being increased during times of emergency. It is worth pointing out that Uber is the most valuable startup in Silicon Valley, and success does tend to attract jealousy. So make of these stories what you will. See also: What does Google know about me?

Uber driverless cars

Despite all their controversies, Uber are ploughing ahead with a driverless car initiative. In Augut 2016 in an interview with Bloomberg, Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick reported that Uber was to start using driverless cars in the city of Pittsburgh that month. 

Cautiously (and sensibly) the cars will be equipped with a person in the driver's seat to override the vehicle should the driverless technology be headed for any kind of error. While this is great for technology, it will stand to incite anger from a fair few people.

Uber drivers are the most obvious. Where before Uber courted controversy by taking work away from taxi drivers, the company has now found a way to do the same to its own drivers.