Who needs a taxi?

I am a big advocate of public transportation. Although I have a car, of course, and recognize the convenience of personal vehicles, I see them as a luxury that we can decreasingly afford. I needed to drive to another city yesterday and a I found all the traffic snarl-ups so demoralizing, stressful and just a waste of time. Unfortunately, my timing and that of the train service did not correspond.

So, I use trains a lot and buses when appropriate. However, there are often times when something more personalized is needed, so I take a taxi …

Although the general idea of a taxi is much the same everywhere, the details vary a lot from place to place. Broadly you pay a driver to take you from A to B. Commonly this is either on a fixed, pre-agreed fare basis or there is some kind of meter. Many of these work on the principle that, above a certain speed the charge is per mile/kilometer, but below that speed it is based on time, which seems fair enough. In most countries, there is a degree of regulation, as we might expect. However, sometimes this does not work out so well and in others it really does not address what modern technology can facilitate.

As I am pondering an upcoming trip to Sweden, I recall being comprehensively ripped-off by a taxi on my last visit, which I wrote about here. That was despite fairly tight government regulations. I will not be caught by that again!

On a more positive note, in Germany [where I generally find that trains etc. work very well] taxis are regulated and seem quite safe. And it is there that I got to know a taxi driver who really knew how to deliver service and use modern technology to his advantage. I wrote about him some time ago.

The only problem with taxis overall is that, apart from small details, they are operated on business models that are more than half a century old. In many places you can only pay cash – even though mobile credit card handling is now quite a mature service. In London, the licensed taxi drivers [called “cabbies”] are required to take a test to ensure that they have a comprehensive knowledge of the streets of the city [this is actually called “The Knowledge”]. This seems rather anachronistic in an age of satellite navigation.

I was introduced to the application of 21st Century business/technology applied to taxis when I was in the US recently. My friend suggested that I used a service, which I had heard about, but not previously experienced, called Uber. This is a “ride sharing” service, which is managed by an online server and some smartphone apps, and uses private cars. The idea is quite simple. You have to open an account and lodge credit card details with them. When you need a ride, you make the request on your phone. It knows [approximately anyway] where you are and sends out a request for a nearby car. When a driver accepts, you get to see on a live map where they are as they approach your location. When they pick you up, they use satellite navigation to get you to your destination. When you arrive the fare is calculated, displayed on your phone and your credit card charged.

For me, this worked like a charm. My ride showed up quickly [on a Friday evening in San Jose, CA]. The car was clean and not very old. The driver was friendly and competent. The price was fine. I would not necessarily recommend this service on the basis of one use, of course, but I was impressed. I also have some reservations. This service is almost completely unregulated, as it is a new business model. My main concern would be the legal situation. My car insurance, for example, explicitly excludes cover if I charge to transport someone. Is that the same with Uber drivers or what? I am not sure that Uber is the future, but I am sure that a shake-up of transportation services is inevitable partly because demand will change as fuel becomes scarce, but also because of the possibility for new business models facilitated by creative use of the Internet. I can also see why conventional taxi drivers are protesting against this kind of service!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2014/10/16/who-needs-a-taxi/