NYC taxi cabs offer high-tech hardware

Passengers can pay by credit card, find ads and reviews and view news stories and an electronic map of their cab's progress.

To taxi officials, the touch-screen monitors popping up in cabs help passengers make the most of the 13 New York minutes spent on an average ride. Passengers can pay by credit card - no more fumbling for cash and tip. As a cab heads through Greenwich Village, for example, passengers can find ads and reviews for neighborhood bars and restaurants. They can also view news stories and an electronic map of their cab's progress. The monitors are now in 200 city cabs as an experiment, but a plan to put them in all 13,000 cabs has angered many drivers. They see the technology as an expensive imposition that would cost them money and allow taxi owners and officials to check up on them. The issue has a delicate history: A 2003 experiment with touch-screen television in taxis ended within months, amid passenger antipathy. And the drivers' group leading the opposition to the monitors notes that it carried out a crippling one-day taxi strike over other issues in 1998. The Taxi and Limousine Commission is scheduled Thursday to consider an Oct. 1 deadline for all of the city's cabs to start installing the systems. "This project is nothing short of revolutionary and evolutionary for the taxi industry," Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Matthew W. Daus wrote in a recent agency newsletter. The commission called for the technology while approving a 26 percent fare increase in 2004, and the agency argues that both riders and drivers stand to benefit. The credit-card option is expected to prove popular with customers in what is now a mostly cash, $1.8 billion-a-year business. Officials say it could translate to bigger tips and more fares from riders short on cash. The global positioning system in the technology will also automate required record-keeping and give drivers crucial information about traffic or lost items. If a customer reports losing a wallet, for example, the taxi commission could send alerts to drivers in the neighborhood where the customer was dropped off to be on the lookout. The commission has approved tests of four systems and may endorse them for sale within days. Taxi owners would choose from the four systems, at a maximum three-year cost of $7,200 for equipment and various fees, although commission officials expect the cost will be far less in many cases. Vendors say advertising can offset at least some of owners' costs. Objecting drivers have raised concerns about the costs of the hardware, credit-card fees and potential working time lost if the systems need repair. Some worry that the global-positioning system will be used to track their movements, although the taxi commission says it will record only the pickup and drop-off points and fare, which drivers already are required to log. "It's trampling on our constitutional rights, and it will cut deeply into our income," said Bill Lindauer, who drove a cab for 30 years and is a member of the organizing committee of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a drivers' advocacy group with more than 7,000 members. The alliance held a rally in March to protest the new systems, and Lindauer said this month that the group was exploring legal and political avenues for trying to block the plan. But some drivers embrace the technology, which came free for those who offered their cabs as proving grounds. Cesar Norena, a 17-year taxi driver testing a system made by Englewood, NJ-based TaxiTech, says passengers have made liberal use of its features, and he believes the credit-card option will boost business. "People really like it," he said, "and as a driver, I really like it, too." ___ On the Net: New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission: