August 28, 2006

Satnav No Match for London Cabbies — Yet

By Matthew Jones

LONDON (Reuters) - Satellite navigation systems may be the latest "must have" car gadgets but London's cab drivers, who have to pass the world's toughest taxi exam, aren't impressed.

While hundreds of thousands of the high-tech guidance systems are sold in Britain every year -- despite some reports of software glitches that have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks -- most cabbies in London prefer to rely on their own brain power.

The increasingly sophisticated satnav devices were approved for use in London's distinctive black cabs for the first time earlier this year.

"I would say take-up has been about 4 or 5 percent, maybe higher for drivers doing the airport runs and those doing jobs in the London suburbs," said Bob Oddy, general secretary of the London Taxi Drivers' Association.

He said London's 25,000 black cab drivers take pride in having passed a grueling exam called "The Knowledge" in order to win the coveted license that allows them to ply their trade.

Would-be cabbies have to learn 320 standard routes and be familiar with the city's myriad streets, roads and avenues as well as countless shortcuts and public buildings.

"Regardless of the salesmen's hype about these machines they cannot match the knowledge and experience of a good cabbie," Oddy said.

Cab driver David Jacobs agreed.

"It's a source of pride that we know every shortcut, hotel or whatever. It always amazes tourists, especially American businessmen," said the 36-year-old who spent over three years studying to pass the test, including driving every route on a moped with a street atlas propped open on the handlebars.


"The Knowledge" requires drivers to know such details as the order of theaters along the main West End thoroughfares and where top hotels and government offices are located.

The test is so tough studies have shown part of the brain of successful applicants actually enlarges -- scientists found London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus, the section of the brain associated with navigation, than other people.

Oddy said black cab drivers also know things a satnav device could not, like which routes are congested when and that longer routes on paper may actually be quicker.

London's lack of a grid system and the fact that licensed cabs can be hailed from any street mean taxi drivers have to decide immediately which route to take rather than stopping to look at a map, ask a controller by radio or to key in destinations into a satnav, said Oddy.

But that could change as the devices become easier to use and more advanced.

"I expect lots of drivers would accept satnavs in their cabs if the machines were really easy to use -- but to be honest if you have been cabbing for a few years you are not really thinking about what route to take, it's more like second nature," said cabbie Jacobs.


The latest generation of satnav devices has low-level traffic congestion recognition and further developments are on the horizon.

George Marshall-Thornhill at consumer magazine Which? has been testing the current crop of new products and believes they will surprise even skeptics when they reach the shops.

Users will likely be able to download new versions onto mobile phones: the latest models will also have functions that tie-in traffic updates from the radio with re-routing software.

Marshall-Thornhill said satnav devices can be invaluable for unfamiliar routes, but are less useful for regular journeys such as those undertaken every day by cab drivers.

Nevertheless, he thought the microchip would eventually best the brain cell.

"My prediction is yes, they will in the future become so advanced that 'The Knowledge' may become obsolete," he said.

"At the moment the devices don't have the sophistication about blocked routes, which shortcuts are best etc ... so 'The Knowledge" is still going to have the advantage for the next 10-15 years."