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article imageNew York cabs to get TV and GPS connection, but drivers are unhappy

By dpa news     Aug 30, 2007 in Technology
New York -­ Sit back, relax and watch television while taking a cab ride ­ this should soon be a routine experience in New York where around 13,000 of the city's distinctive yellow taxis are to be fitted with a state-of-the-art video system by the end of this year.
By Nada Weigelt, dpa
The cabs will have touch-screens allowing customers to call up the latest news headlines, search for a restaurant or theatre show or else watch custom-made video clips. Passengers will also be able to follow the cab's progress through the high-rise concrete jungle on an electronic map and pay the fare by credit card if they wish.
"This is a unique, integrated, tailor-made system aimed at boosting customer service," said Matthew Daus, head of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission.
No other city could boast such a high-tech service, he added. Daus' enthusiasm may well be shared by fare-paying citizens but not by the drivers or cabbies. The powerful Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents more than 8,000 members, has even threatened to call a strike unless the city makes some changes to the scheme before it is introduced.
What upsets the cabbies most of all is that they themselves will have to pay for the installation of a special global positioning (GPS) navigation system. It allows taxi headquarters to track the cab's route history ­ namely how many trips each vehicle has taken and how much money has been taken in fares.
This is akin "to trampling on the private life and economics" of drivers in a job which is already arduous and badly paid, Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Drivers' Alliance, told the New York Times newspaper.
Cabbies would find themselves under virtual 24-hour surveillance, he lamented. Desai's organisation recently staged a protest rally in Madison Square Garden.
"It will be like wearing one of those electronic tags they put on criminals," complained one of his members, taxi driver Ley Acey.
New York City authorities see the system as a practical way of giving drivers tips on how to avoid snarl-ups on the city's congested roads and they point to other advantages. The system would make it easier for people to retrieve lost property such as mislaid wallets or briefcases since the route of each vehicle can be easily retraced, they claim.
"It's going to be a right mess, pretty chaotic I expect," said 34- year-old driver Eugene Ansah.
The Ghanian has been living in New York since 1997.
Two years ago a group of friends helped him to buy an environmentally-friendly minivan which he runs as a taxi. A plate riveted to the bonnet carries the number "4 G 14". He leases it from a licensing company in New York.
"I only just manage to make ends meet as it is," he said. "Now I'll have to go out and buy the new equipment and whenever someone pays by credit card the bank will take 5 per cent". That's going to hit me hard."
Driving a taxi in New York is admittedly a tough job at the best of times. Many of the 40,000 cabbies who ply the streets have to work for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Threading a way through the often gridlocked streets is nerve-wracking and many of the roads are in a poor state of repair.
Ninety per cent of the cabs in use are well-worn examples of the fuel-guzzling Ford Crown Victoria model and these have an average "life expectancy" of little more than three years. A license to drive a New York cab is nevertheless highly-prized.
Two cab license plates were recently sold privately for the record sum of 600,000 US-dollars each - only large taxi companies can afford to pay this kind of money.
The new tracking system obliges cab owners to choose from equipment available from four different suppliers, with monthly rental rates of between 40 and 70 dollars. Estimates put the cost of buying and maintaining the system over the next three years at between 2,800 and 5,400 dollars.
"We are not opposed to high-tech in principle, but this system has not been thought through properly and it amounts to a pay cut," said Bigu Mathew of the Taxidrivers? Alliance.
The organization staged a strike once before in 1998 when the city planned to hike up the fines for minor driving offences. As a result of that industrial action New Yorkers had to manage for 24 hours without their beloved "yellow cabs".
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