Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Personal Touch

(More thought s about driver-less cabs and the de-personalisation of society.  This is my original edit of an article written for Taxi magazine).

Non-cab driving friends often taunt me that self-driving taxis are on their way.  I still laugh off their claims.  Recently, a driver-less car being tested by Uber ran a red light in San Francisco.  They tried to say there was a human driving, but there wasn’t.  Keep wasting your money, it’s not going to happen.

Even if taxis and mini-cabs were replaced by self-driving machines, would the public have enough confidence to travel in a cab with no driver?  And has the personal touch been underestimated?

In the unlikely event such a thing ever happens, it’ll surely happen in the USA first.  Eugene Salomon is the author of the wonderful Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver.  He recently conducted an informal survey of his passengers, and found a good 90% saying they’d never get into a driverless taxi.  If automated vehicles continue to run red lights, that’s a given.  But it’s not just about safety.  Eugene says the best taxi rides are the ones where both driver and customer share an interesting interaction.  Not just an efficient, but dull, ride in silence.

Human interaction is continuously being factored out of daily life through technology.  Look at how few tills there are in your supermarket, and how we are encouraged to use the self-scanning facility.  Apart from the frustration at being continuously told you’ve put your shopping in the wrong place, or have got the wrong bag, I find the whole experience depressing.  It’s an impersonal experience.

And all I can think of is the redundant staff who’ve made room for the machines.  Who benefits from replacing humans with robots?  In classic Marxism, those who own the means of production have the power.  That means the supermarkets and it means Uber.  Uber are never going to win an Investors in People award, and their move towards driver-less mini-cabs shows their intention to lay off all their drivers ASAP.  It’s highly unlikely that the remaining supermarket workers’ wages have been raised through savings made on laying off those replaced by machines.  You can be sure that the profits made go straight to the shareholders.

Let’s look at other modes of transport.  There are no conductors on buses any more, and no cash changes hands.  We hardly notice the person with the gallant responsibility of driving the huge red monster.  You’re virtually encouraged to see the driver as a robot merely opening and shutting the doors.  Please don’t speak to the driver or distract his attention.  Scan your Oyster Card and move quickly inside before you become a victim of knife crime.

Air travel is an interesting one:  most of the flight is programmed by technology:  the pilot’s role is largely in taking off and landing.  As a nervous flyer I don’t like to think about that when I’m up in the air; I like to imagine two highly-skilled pilots deep in concentration.  Driver-less aeroplanes?  Would you trust an Uber-operated jumbo to perform an emergency landing on the Hudson River?  You can almost imagine the surge pricing supplement should they manage to pull it off.

I don’t want to give Ryanair ideas, but what if there were no cabin crew?  Imagine no re-assuring waving of the arms as they go through the safety procedures.  What if you had to get your own refreshments from a vending machine at the back?  It wouldn’t be the same.  You might not expect long chats with the flight attendants, but their presence gives you confidence (encountering turbulence I always look over to the flight attendants:  if their faces aren’t contorted in fear, I stay calm).  It’s more than that though:  it’s nice to see a human face, and have someone to talk to if necessary.

I don’t generally encourage my cab passengers to talk.  Partly because I’m no socialite, and partly because it’s so difficult to hold a conversation with someone shouting at your head through an inadequate intercom system.  I always acknowledge my customers though, and as a cab rider myself I feel aggrieved if the driver doesn’t acknowledge me.  I don’t need a chat, just a smile and a hello.

I think we need to play up the human contact.  I certainly don’t want to come over as a grumpy old man – and you have to admit, there are one or two in London.  So, this week I’m launching a personal initiative to be extra friendly, and to even make the effort to talk.

With Uber’s London licence up for renewal, I was thinking how TfL couldn’t possibly refuse to renew it, as they’d be making many thousands of drivers unemployed (or is that self-unemployed?).  But should their cars become driver-less, those same drivers will be on the scrap heap.  By this reckoning, so would we.  It won’t happen though.  It’s science fiction.  It’s a fairground ride at Madame Tussauds.

Anyway, how would your robo-cab cope if you changed your destination, or you wanted a detour to pick someone else up?  What if the cab turned up with a plastic bag over the credit card reader?  And what if you want to go somewhere that your driver-less cab didn’t want to go to?

Eugene asks how you’d argue with a robot that said “I don’t go to Brookyln”.  Our equivalent is, of course, “I don’t go south.”  Who would win the argument?  It’s worth thinking about…

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I’m Backing Britain

(original edit of my article for Taxi magazine)

By the time you read this, Our Glorious Leader, Theresa May, will have triggered Article 50.  When Mrs May presses the button, we have two years to leave the European Union.  I didn’t feel strongly either way when I voted out, and only time will tell if I made the right decision.  All I know is, all the uncertainty, and all the talking down of the country, has caused anxiety.  We just need to get on with it and go forward with a bit of confidence.

I didn’t think leaving the EU would be so complicated.  It didn’t bode well on day one, when David Cameron shirked his responsibility and had it away on his toes.  He didn’t expect the referendum result, nobody did; but plans should have been in place for that eventuality.  While everyone’s dithered, there have been court cases, more voting in parliament and the Lords, and threats from the EU that they’re going to give us a tough divorce (well, they have to do that to deter other countries from leaving).  And now the Scottish Nationalists are trying to distract proceedings and split the United Kingdom at a time when we should all be pulling together.  Finally though, The Queen gave her assent, and it looks like it’s going to happen.  Sadly, modern royals have little to do with the day to day running of the country.  Centuries ago, the king or queen dictated everything, but all they get to do now is put a rubber stamp down where they’re told to by some public school upstart.  I’d like to see the Queen given more powers, not less.  Maybe let her chop a few heads off like in the good old days.  They could start with Nicola Sturgeon.  Anyway, I digress.

I’m not sure why negotiations are expected to last two years.  I don’t understand all the talk about hard-boiled Brexit, Full English Brexit, and semi-skimmed Brexit.  The referendum question was binary: in or out.  When I voted out, I assumed we just pulled out and went our own way.  This scenario was known as Hard Brexit after the referendum, and became something the detractors told us they never meant.  I thought we’d just cancel the direct debit and unsubscribe from the newsletter.  In the coming months we could decide which EU laws to keep and which ones to dump.  Once we’d found our feet, we could maybe send out the Queen’s Navy to warn off Spanish trawlers, and any other Johnny European who wants to try it on.

In the days leading up to the triggering of Article 50, the Chancellor of the Exchequer reversed his budget plan to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed.  The original move gave the wrong signal.  At a time when Britain was preparing to go it alone, it would’ve been more positive to provide support to entrepreneurs and small business people.  Big business generally wanted us to stay in the EU.  Of course they did; they need cheap labour to exploit through the EU.  While they pay their staff peanuts on zero-hours contracts, or on sham self-employed arrangements, they can make deals with the taxman.  Their workers can then make deals with the Benefits Agency to top up their meagre earning with tax credits.  International big business is essential of course, but we also need to support grass roots growth.  We rely too much on foreign investment, and not enough in the skills and flair of our own people.

People say importing and exporting will cost us more.  I don’t see why:  if the EU imposes trade tariffs on us, we’ll do the same.  We’re importing too much anyway.  We should be buying domestically as much as possible.  With the big stuff, I find it shameful the police are driving around in foreign cars.  I’m not sure where the steel comes from to supply the huge Crossrail project, but I suspect much of it is foreign too.  This is where we need to start.  I’m not sure how British our cabs really are, but there’s not a lot we can do about that anyway.

On the everyday shopping list, if we insist on summer fruits in the winter, it’s right we pay through the nose to have produce in from sunnier climes.  Why not just go without strawberries until the British ones are available?  Switch to something else for a while.  Most of my beer is British, and I only buy foreign wine because the excellent wines that are produced in England aren’t available in my local shops.  In fairness, they’re a bit pricy too.  Maybe if more people demanded it, more would be produced, and prices would come down.  New Zealand isn’t in the EU, so I can live with that.

It’ll be several years before we know who was right or wrong on the EU debate.  There’s no point moaning about it, or casting blame.  We need to start looking forward.  There are sure to be new opportunities we haven’t yet thought of.  Who knows how we’ll stand with the USA or China in the future.  We should forge closer ties with the Commonwealth.

Let’s start now:  stop talking the country down, and think positive.  Let big business take care of itself, and support local our artisans – yes, like your local taxi drivers:  each one an individual British business person.  Eat and drink as British as possible – and preferably in British measures such as pints. Wetherspoons supported Brexit, and that’s where I’m going now.  Over a foaming tankard of British ale I’m proudly able to say that I drink for England.

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