On Matters Relative to Leading Edge Technology

Future of Transportation

The October 1997 edition of "Scientific American", as a special issue devoted to "The Future of Transportation", makes for interesting reading alongside Bill Gates' book - The Road Ahead which I'm currently reading.

I particularly liked the article on hybrid vehicles, which I perceive do have a potential future in the world of taxicabs. I wonder if that portion of our industry not fleet oriented will embrace this new technology. I cannot imagine that such a vehicle will be produced in small enough quantities to be of interest to the vast array of single vehicle owner-operators throughout this industry.

California, with its 1998 zero-emissions legislation, would I believe be an outstanding proving ground for such a vehicle produced in large quantities for that market in response to regulatory imposition of environmental pollution controls and standards, certain to emerge in our time on a global scale.

However, today's taxicab vehicle market, certainly in North America, is not conducive to widespread introduction of such a vehicle. Unless of course we see an alliance emerging between the manufacturers and the environmental regulators.

Without such an alliance, I see little hope of such vehicles emerging in our lifetime on our streets providing personalized transportation to the general public. Our industry is just too atomized. It would be a marketing nightmare for a manufacturer to introduce such a vehicle to the taxi industry.

Yet such a vehicle, in mass quantities, will one day become a reality, essentially in response to environmental pollution concerns, hopefully sooner rather than later. An alliance between manufacturers and environmental protection regulatory agencies could conceivably be so crafted as to provoke, possibly force, fleet organizational structures throughout our industry, something I've long held to be fundamentally essential and mutually beneficial with our travelling public.

What would have to happen in our industry to make such a vehicle a realistic possibility? Is it conceivable that such technology could be retrofitted to a perfectly serviceable purpose built accessible taxicab chassis, in staisfaction of these new standards. Is it conceivable that current production facilities could be converted to this new technology?

In the article's sidebar on Further Reading, I note the availability on the 'Net of "Policy Implications of Hybrid-Electric Vehicles", Final Report to NREL, d/April 1996. It's a 62 page document, but here's a couple of extracts from its Abstract

"Properly-designed hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs) using today's production vehicle platforms could offer the consumer, in the near-term, an affordable and appealing alternative to conventional ICE-powered (internal combustion engine) vehicles. At the same time, these vehicles could achieve the national priorities of reduced fuel use and reduced emissions."

"An HEV with a low-cost, light-weight battery pack and a small engine-powered auxiliary power unit (APU) could plug in to any 110 V (or 220 V) outlet at night and travel these short daytime trips on battery power alone. On longer trips, the engine/alternator could augment the battery and maintain the battery charge. By refueling every 400 miles like a conventional vehicle, trips of unlimited length are possible."

"HEVs could offer the same performance, range and "full-tank" feeling of security as conventional vehicles. Yet they are likely to cost less than BOEVs [battery-only electrical vehicle]. In mass-production, such HEVs might compete in cost with conventional ICE-powered vehicles. Under those circumstances, such HEVs could gain significant and perhaps dominant market share."

Interesting, exciting concept well suited to personalized transportation of people by means of vehicles-for-hire. Unfortunately, doomed unless by some miracle of regulatory courage, industry atomization evaporates. What's it going to take?

From an InterNet discussion 28 September 1997

Enhanced Technology

Someone on the 'Net observed:

"If GPS can tell us the location of a cab at any time, and can watch its movements on the screen, and record the data for later referral, why can't we beat corrupt coppers by being able to calculate the cab's speed and produce a printout in court as proof of the actual speed being done by the cab at the time."

Absolutely! And while at it, let's dump in-car meters, with all their fraud opportunities, and calculate fare payable back at home base computer, based upon the flow of GPS data.

Don't laugh, for this capability has always been there with GPS based dispatch/tracking systems. At least one GPS manufacturer, Trimble, has done it. What you propose is quite realistic for most cities. In a few cities loaded with "urban canyons", there are some potential difficulties if the local GPS dispatch system does not have a "dead reckoning" feature.

From an InterNet discussion 20 September 1997

GPS Based Dispatch as a Public Utility

GPS based dispatch systems have developed remarkably quick for the taxicab industry and have proven themselves to be cost effective. Computer technology has also developed such that "clients" can "own" a piece of a computer with guaranteed security. One wonders then why centralized dispatch for the whole of a municipal taxicab industry has not emerged.

I've been promoting this for years under the concept of a public utility operated, if necessary, by a municipality, providing GPS based dispatch services to a multitude of fleets. Doesn't really matter if the fleet is owned by the federal, provincial, city, state, telephone company, television cable company, department store, courier service, police, fire, ambulances, taxi, limo, or whatever.

Each 'client' can "own" a database on the master computer, password protected, possibly even hard-wired protected, inaccessable by anybody else. Customer base is protected, each client is free to market its own unique level of service through its own unique telephone number. This multi-faceted dispatch service is completely transparent to the ultimate customer - the travelling public.

A customer phones same old number for ABC Taxi Co., the receptionist responds, "ABC Taxi, how can we help you?", and dispatches an ABC taxi to that customer. Everybody wins. Neat benefit is having the police and taxi on same dispatch system; when a driver is in peril, simple matter to trigger in the police.

From an InterNet discussion 16 September 1997

Fare Structure

Historically and traditionally, we've tended to confine our perception of taxi fares to tweaking the standard model:

$ x.x - Drop $ x.x - Distance $ x.x - Time

The standard model tends to discourage drivers from willingly taking short trips, and discourages customers from taking long trips. What kind of creative fare structure might overcome these two perceived opportunities?

Taxi meters today are fundamentally micro-computers which could theoretically be programmed with several different fare structures, a huge improvement over old meter technology.

With GPS based dispatch systems in place, is a meter really needed? With the 2 variables of location and time, fare could easily be computed at base computer on a real time basis. That being the case, how about a distance sensitive formula that kicks in variable rate discounts as distance increases?

Our perception of the old standard formula of drop/distance/time is most often imbedded in local regulations, sometimes with taxes added in. What would happen if local regulatory authorities were presented with a request for a creative fare structure outside traditional expectations? What would be needed to persuade regulatory authorities to embrace a creative, non-traditional fare structure?

Assuming enlightened regulatory response, how about some formula whereby sequential distance sensitive drops for first x kilometres, followed by traditional incremental advance, followed by distance sensitive discounts as mileage piles up? Who says there can only be one drop? Technically it's possible to program sequential drops, not necessarily ascending or descending.

Think about it - short trips, long trips, could both be encouraged by such an approach using leading edge computer power.

From an InterNet discussion 13 February 1997

The Cashless Taxi

by Terry Smythe

In my previous article (February I995, Taxi Magazine, p.24), I indicated that the dominant lure leading to assaults and robberies of taxi drivers is the perceived presence of raw cash. The driver is seen as vulnerable, easy prey, an open cash register - all largely true. I also indicated that leading edge technology is here today to make it possible to migrate to the cashless taxi.

13,000 wirelcss industry executives recently descended on New Orleans to display and see a vision of the future at the premier trade show of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Some 440 wireless companies promise to transform the way we communicate with telephone calls, video, and data over the air waves.

It is this "data over the airwaves" that is exciting for the taxicab industry. Leading edge technology now coming into the market place will make it possible for taxicab customers to not only pay for their rides with credit cards, but more importantly, with their debit credit cards. The debit card concept of paying for products is catching on with great intensity all over North America. The general public clearly likes the ability to conveniently pay for something without having to carry cash.

What this means to the taxicab business owner is that the use of debit cards puts daily receipts into his hands the same day! Yes, there is a fee to be paid, no different than for VISA, but what is significant is the immediate credit of revenues rather than waiting to month end. More importantly, the migration to the cashless taxi is being given an enormous boost. The life and health of a taxi driver is every bit as precious as that of a politician, busincss leader, community Ieader, etc. We must get serious about improving the safety of taxi drivers everywhere. Eliminate the cash and taxi drivers are immediately relieved of a huge burden of risk.

Taxicab company executives must also be equally interested from a number of viewpoints. As driving a taxi becomes safer, it will automatically become easier to recruit new drivers, and a majority will likely stay longer. Retention rates will go up, service levels will go up with increased successes and awareness, leading to increases in general revenues and profitability.

The media is full of stories of robberies, assaults and murders, followed by theft and destruction of the taxicab either in a joy ride or in a high speed chase. Here is another situation where the industry will emerge as a winner through preservation of its major capital assets - vehicles.

As the cashless taxi takes over and the mayhem inflicted on taxi drivers shrinks, "terrible taxi stories" in the newspapers will also shrink as the media folks will have fewer and fewer such stories to report. There is no question that the media has a continent wide affection for the taxicab industry. It will clearly be in the inustry's best interests to see this most welcome shrinkage of media bad news that so often distorts public perception of the importance and value of the taxi industry and the outstanding contribution it makes to a city's transportation infrastructure and its economy.

A year ago, there were only a handful of merchants offering wireless technology. A month ago, their numbers had swelled to 440! The timing to seriously consider upgrading into leading edgc technology to offer a huge improvement in taxi driver safety has never been more opportune. Your most precious assets are your drivers, prorect them!

Originally published in Taxi Magazine, March 1994

Back to Short Essays Index