Conversations with taxi drivers are one of the joys - and trials - of modern life. But could new technology make this bit of human interaction a thing of the past?
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By Paul Rubens
Taxi drivers are a smart bunch - it's said that learning their way around a city makes their brains grow bigger. That's probably why many people enjoy a natter with a cabbie, but these lively discussions may soon become a thing of the past.
You had who in your cab?
It's not that cabbies are getting less knowledgeable, it's just that the taxis they drive are getting smarter. The latest cabs in Australia, for example, are well equipped to give their drivers a run for their money: they can give you the news, help you work out the maximum mortgage you can afford, and offer informed opinions on just about any topic you could possibly be interested in.
TouchTaxi, a media company based in Melbourne, kits out the cabs with heavy duty PCs in the boot connected wirelessly to large touch-sensitive screens in the back of the headrests, global positioning system (GPS) receivers, Wi-Fi wireless internet access cards and an SMS and general packet radio service (GPRS) data connection to the mobile phone network.
These parts work together to provide passengers with an in-taxi information system which they are free to browse while they are driven around the city. There's no need to ask the driver to recommend a bar or club in the area - the taxi itself is more than qualified to provide the answer. And because systems like these don't come cheaply, the top quarter of each touch screen is reserved for banner advertisements.
There's nothing new about ads in taxis, but these taxis have a few tricks up their sleeves to help attract advertisers at premium rates - most notably using the GPS for cheeky "guerrilla" marketing campaigns, says Ruwan Weerasooriya, TouchTaxi's CEO.
Taxis are constantly on the move, but thanks to GPS, TouchTaxi can keep tabs on exactly where the vehicles are and offer "proximity based" advertising, he says.
"What we can do is let an airline target a rival airline's departure area. As the taxi pulls up at Virgin's taxi rank, the screen could flash up a message saying 'Wouldn't you be more comfortable on Qantas?'
The system at work in Australia
"We can also let companies ambush rivals' outdoor poster sites or head offices strategically, so that as you drive past the Diners Club building, for example, you show American Express ads to divert passengers' attention from the advertising outside."
Art of chat
Computer screens in the back of taxis don't necessarily kill the art of conversation, but if you do have a chat in one of these cabs it's quite possible that it will be with a complete stranger than with the driver.
That's because smart taxis can introduce you to people based on the advertising that gets your attention. If your interest is piqued by an ad for a loan, for example, the taxi can bring up a calculator on the screen so you can work out how much you could afford to borrow. Punch in your mobile phone number and the taxi will automatically send a text message to a salesman in the area alerting them that you are a hot prospect.
A few seconds later he'll call your mobile phone and you'll be talking about the loan before you've got to your destination - or had a chance to change you mind.
Maintaining a reasonably fast internet connection in a moving cab that stays connected throughout a city at a reasonable cost is surprisingly difficult, TouchTaxi has discovered: Wi-Fi has too short a range and GPRS is too slow.
The firm gets round this by storing copies of a large selection of web pages on the computer in the boot. These pages are updated every few minutes using the GPRS connection so that changes to the original web pages on the internet are soon reflected in the copies cached on the computer in the taxi's boot.
It's probably only a matter of time before systems like TouchTaxi's become commonplace all over the world, so if you're one of those people whose heart sinks when they get into a taxi and hear the classic "I'll tell you what the problem is with this country. . ." from the driver then the good new is you'll be able to interact with the taxi instead.
But if in-taxi information systems kill the art of conversation with a cabbie then I for one will miss the local knowledge and the unique perspectives on life that only taxi drivers can provide. And I'd much rather guess who the driver had in the back of the cab the other day than discuss the relative merits of endowment and repayment mortgages with a faceless salesperson at the other end of my mobile phone.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Am I the only person who feels bombarded with too much advertising already, thank you very much!
This is just sad. We live in a world already over-saturated with advertising--and little recourse for people to block it out. This is just one more straw, which one will break the elephant's back?
Tim Courtney, Wheaton, IL, US
When riding in a cab I am either going to or coming from my PC in office or home, the last thing I want to do in the relaxing sactuary of a cab is punch more screen work. I do see one advantage: if the screen would show the drivers face via a camera mounted on his dashboard it would be nice to see the face of the driver as one chatted and such a help to those of us who suffer hearing problem and do rely on lip reading for communication.
Tony Wood, Brandon Manitoba Canada
There's the risk that these things will enjoy a quick boom while they are still a novelty and advertisers will jump on it like flies to a corpse. Just like the aforementioned corpse, the system will start to "decompose" when the users realise that it's little more than a screen full of adverts and will go back to chatting to the taxi driver - a usually far more useful source of info.
Darryl LeCount, Paderborn, Germany
what a ridiculous idea? as if modern life wasn't crammed full of technology and commercialism enough, they are trying to give me a headache in taxis as well?! i just hope that people are not as antisocial as the advertisers hope and cab drivers can still pass on their gems of wisdom.
alison, edinburgh, uk
I hope there is an off button
Bruce, Ottawa, Canada
This technology is the kind of technology that everyone will have in their pocket in a few years time in the form of 3G mobile phones. It won't just be the cabbies that miss out on conversation, people will be walking around constantly glued to their mobile screens!
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