Toronto's taxis are adding tablets to the dispatch system, changing more than half a century of cabbie culture.
On a chilly Saturday morning, five Beck taxis are lined up in front of 1 Yonge Street. The first two drivers can’t speak to me—not because they don’t want to, but because they’re waiting for dispatches. “I’m talking to you,” one driver tells me, “but I’m not listening to you 100 per cent. Here, I have to listen to the radio, or I miss the call.”
This has been taxicab culture since the 1940s: cabbies listen to the radio primarily to pick up clients, but the secondary uses are myriad—they can clue into popular intersections, blow off steam, or chat about hockey. The dispatcher is the mothership, transforming cabs from isolated cells into lively hubs. As long as your radio’s turned up, you’re never really alone.
Now, by adding tablets to the mix, that culture will gradually disappear.
“The radio is like a human environment,” says Mac, fifth in line at 1 Yonge, who asked I not use his real name. “Just like a lot of other cons of technology, we’re gonna lose the human touch in our business. Most of the time it’s just like talking to the computer.”
Mac has been driving cabs for more than five years, and understands tablets’ value. Instead of voices crackling over the speaker, dispatchers will be able to see each car’s position online via GPS, and send drivers on missions individually, using the radio system more selectively, depending on who’s closest. It saves the company money on hiring more dispatchers during busy periods, and creates a more responsive network of drivers who can, theoretically, reach clients faster. Plus, Mac says he can more handily win arguments with backseat drivers who think they know the best routes.
“In terms of dispatching the order, it might be easier,” Mac says. “Not faster or more effective, just easier.”
“Just like a lot of other cons of technology, we’re gonna lose the human touch in our business.”
And for Beck—Toronto’s largest cab company, with a fleet of 1,850 vehicles—making things easier is crucial. The virtualization is part of a larger war against Uber, the controversial ride-share app; Beck’s in-car digital overhaul is directly linked to the launch of the their own app late last year.
“The pace of technological change hitting the taxi industry is absolutely astounding,” says John Duffy, publisher of the Toronto monthly Taxi News. “For a long time, taxi companies have been using a very outdated 1950s business model, and to a certain extent have been forced, kicking and screaming, to upgrade the systems because of the new competition.”
Cabbies are divided. Ahmed, a driver two cars ahead of Mac at 1 Yonge, resents the current radio system: “If you want fair game, you will not miss it.” Some drivers, he explains, use the radio to claim they’re closer to a client than they really are, guaranteeing them a fare at the cost of the team’s efficiency. “People are lying,” Ahmed says, tapping his screen. “Tablet doesn’t lie.”
Every major cab company in Toronto is in a transition process to bring the city’s 10,500 cabs into the 21st century. And the loss is truly a game-changer: watch the opening of the National Film Board’s noir-esque 1982 documentary, Taxi!; the wise-cracking air of buzzing gossip and sports chatter is the definitive taxi ambience. By next year, like in so many other industries, that will be largely replaced by digital silence.
“I don’t think the buggy makers welcomed the technological change with open arms 100 years ago,” Duffy says. “But that’s the reality of the world, and one way or another, it’s gonna be changed.”
This article originally implied that Beck was swapping out radios for tablets entirely. In fact, cab drivers will continue to use radios alongside the digital dispatch system.