India's Ola to begin operations in London in 'coming weeks'

Manish Singh
Indian Ola app co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal gestures as he addresses a press conference in Bangalore on November 22, 2016. Ola has announced the launch of "OLA Play", which will allow passengers using the Ola taxi service to access music and videos, and also tweak car settings such as air conditioning, during Ola rides. / AFP / MANJUNATH KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian ride-hailing giant Ola said today it will begin operations in London “in the coming weeks,” a day after the local authorities revoked Uber’s license to operate in one of the world's most lucrative cities.

The Indian firm, which entered portions of the UK last year, has started to sign up drivers in London ahead of the launch in the city, it said. The company, which has raised over $3.5 billion to date, aims to on-board 50,000 drivers in London -- larger than Uber's current fleet size in the city.

Ola -- which like its rival Uber, counts SoftBank Group as an investor -- secured an operating license from Transport for London (TfL) earlier this year. The firm said it can already serve 7 million users across 27 boroughs in the UK.

To win over drivers, Ola said it was charging "favourable commissions" in a way that would allow drivers to keep "more of their earnings." It did not specify the exact figures. In India, an Ola driver partner gets to keep between 70-74% of the passenger fare and access some "incentives."

Simon Smith, who heads Ola's international operations, said the firm's mobility platform is "fully compliant" with TfL's standards. In a statement, he added, "we have had constructive conversations with the authorities, drivers, and local communities in London over the past months, and look forward to contributing towards solving mobility issues in innovative and meaningful ways."

On Monday, Uber was stripped of its London license -- for the second time -- after authorities found that more than 14,000 trips on its platform were taken with drivers who had faked their identity.

The Indian company, on its part, could not have made it clearer that it was doing everything Uber supposedly didn't.

Ola said in London, it will offer a range of safety features including an "industry-first" driver facial recognition system for "continuous authentication," a "driver image verification against driving licence photographs," "robust technology systems to ensure that only licensed drivers complaint with TfL requirements can operate on the platform," a 24/7 helpline for customers and drivers, and an in-app emergency button to alert Ola's Safety Response Team.

Expansion to London illustrates Ola's growing international ambitions, especially in markets where Uber, its chief rival in India, has large presence. Ola maintains a wide lead over Uber in India.

The company, which is operational in parts of New Zealand and Australia, has so far targeted tier 2 cities in the UK. Move to London would be a significant step for Ola as the UK capital is a major European market. Uber itself claims to have about 3.5 million users and 45,000 registered drivers in the city.

TfL said yesterday that it had found "patterns of failures" in Uber's operations that put "passenger safety and security at risk." In addition to unauthorized drivers being on the platform, TfL said it had also identified another safety and security failure that allowed dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi expressed his disappointment at TfL's decision yesterday, adding that the company would be appealing TfL's decision. He said. "[...] this TfL decision is just wrong. Over the last 2 years we have fundamentally changed how we operate in London." The company can continue to operate in the city during the appeals process.

PR pitch to Ola reveals the inner workings of UK ride-hailing politics