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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