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Bad Connection

Why it’s so hard to make credit cards work in cabs.

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A major obstacle to the installation of credit-card systems in all 12,187 cabs by late in 2005 is familiar to anyone who’s ever thrown a cell phone in anger: New York’s spotty wireless service.

In a recent study, only 13 percent of credit-card transactions were completed. Cabdriver Ralph Oehl, who does mostly airport trips, says he gets poor or no reception 40 percent of the time. Oehl usually drives a block or two to find a signal.

Even under ideal conditions, credit-card approval takes about one minute, according to Oehl (the study’s average was two). Still, that’s “faster than cash,” claims Bill Schiotis, director of marketing at cab credit-card developer Taxitronic, who obviously doesn’t carry small change around.

Mike Levine, vice-president of Ronart Leasing Corp., has credit-card systems in most of the company’s 294-cab fleet. He says the solution is allowing credit cards to be authorized, but not charged, at the start of a trip. Good luck getting mistrustful New Yorkers to agree to that.

BUILDING A BETTER TAXI
Compared to what some other cities are experimenting with, credit-card systems and GPS tracking look conservative.

Hybrid Cabs
Toronto-based Azure Dynamics is converting three London cabs into hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles. And English designer John Jostins has designed an entirely hydrogen-powered taxi that has zero emissions. Production is expected to begin in 2005.

Black Boxes
Soon to be installed in some Tokyo cabs, these taxi “flight recorders” automatically record video whenever they detect sudden braking or changes in direction. They also sound alarms, which aim to warn drivers of potential accidents.

Cell-Phone Hailing
Already up and running in London, Zingo lets users hail the nearest cab by calling a number with their cell phones. The cell-phone network figures out the nearest driver from the caller’s location, then connects the two directly.

Driverless Taxis
Set to debut in Cardiff, Wales, next year, the ULTra (Urban Light Transport) is a combination light rail–taxi system made up of individual battery-operated cars that run on a track. Passengers program the station stop of their choice using a smart card.

The Anti-Livery Device
Australia’s Autocab has created a high-tech taxi-booking service: Passengers put a dollar into an automated kiosk, which alerts the nearest cab and prints out a confirmation ticket. Currently being tested in London, the system is meant to reduce gypsy cabs.

Surf While You Ride
Taxis in Singapore are being outfitted with private Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks so that passengers can check e-mail or surf the Web on their handheld devices or laptop PCs. The in-cab network is linked via GPRS, GSM, and G3 public cellular networks.


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