Taxis: Giving tech a fare crack
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Glasgow Private Hire

With high-tech platforms like Uber on the rise, business as usual is no longer an option for the taxi industry. Sam Fenwick hears how it’s fighting back

The next time you hail or book a taxi give some thought to the complex dance taking place between call handlers, drivers and data management systems. It ensures the whole process can meet customers’ increasingly high expectations without coming to a screeching halt during periods of heavy demand.

It’s not an easy market to operate in, made less so by the rise of Uber and ride-sharing platforms. However, traditional companies are fighting back by adopting new technology. One such firm is Glasgow Private Hire, a 500-cab taxi company that has recently migrated to the iCabbi cloud-based dispatch and automation platform.

“We were happy with the system we had. However, we have a duty to our customers and drivers to always be looking forward, and with the advances in development and technology within our industry we reached a point where we had to move with the times, which is what we did!”,says Peter Kelso, office manager at Glasgow Private Hire. The decision to move to the iCabbi platform wasn’t done blindly. “One of our sister companies [Penny Cars in Chapelhall] installed iCabbi at the beginning of May 2016, and from then it has had no downtime and no issues of any real concern,” Kelso adds. “We monitored its progress and quickly came to the conclusion that iCabbi was the company to go with.”

Cloud-based platforms still need a way to get information to the cab drivers. John Dundas, director of radio communications provider DundasTech, explains that for a few years taxis have been migrating from two-way radio to Android devices. This is quite cost-effective given that there’s no need for radio licences. By replacing analogue radios and bespoke data terminals the cost of outfitting a vehicle has dropped from around £1,000 to roughly £100.

However, there are risks associated with using a public network for business-critical communications, such as the fact that they lack the backup power facilities to stay operational during prolonged power cuts. As part of its transition to iCabbi – and with Dundas’ guidance – Glasgow Private Hire has done a great deal to mitigate these risks. The in-cab cellular terminals are dual SIM (Vodafone and O2).

Gavan Walsh, founder and CEO of iCabbi, notes that as far as connectivity is concerned: “The [cellular] networks are dramatically improving, so when we first started six years ago this was more of an issue… It never really comes up anymore.” He adds that it is more of a problem for smaller taxi companies rather than the large ones served by iCabbi. “Our system is focused on the enterprise-level segment because smaller customers don’t tend to get the best out of it, as they don’t have the time to get to know it well enough.”

Glasgow Private Hire’s office has two separate internet providers, with the physical connections coming into the building from separate pipes running in different directions, to ensure that if one is accidentally severed connectivity remains. The office also has an uninterruptable power supply and a quick-start generator. In addition, the owner of the company has a separate business and because both iCabbi and the company’s telephony systems are cloud-based he can quickly log on from that site. This also means Glasgow Private Hire can let staff work from home, which Dundas adds is especially useful during periods of peak demand – rather than bringing them in to work additional eight-hour shifts they can just work for a few hours until the surge in calls drops off.

Despite being somewhat familiar to the firm, transitioning to iCabbi didn’t happen overnight. “The staff started working on the system quite early on, transferring data from the old system to the new one like customer names, addresses and phone numbers,” Dundas says. There was also the need to upload all the driver-related information such as their badges, disclosures, car registrations, and “all the normal sort of checks their vehicles have”. “When you’re dealing with 500 cars it’s quite a long timeframe to do that,” Dundas adds.

In addition, all the drivers had to be trained to use the new system. To simplify this task and minimise the amount of time the drivers were off the roads they received e-training, watched YouTube videos and were given a handbook. The iCabbi system as used by Glasgow Private Hire is set up to automatically dispatch taxis, allowing the support staff to focus on taking calls, particularly from elderly people and others less keen to book via the company’s app, website or through its interactive voice recognition (IVR) system.

AdobeStock_112121623.jpegThe level of requests that can be handled automatically is impressive. In early April 68 per of Glasgow Private Hire’s bookings were automated. The automated dispatch function means if something were to prevent the call takers from logging on app-, Web- and IVR-based booking would still be handled without any issues.

Walsh says that the iCabbi platform is hosted on Amazon Web Services, which is split into a number of zones and if one falls over then “everything just transfers to another one”. He adds that “in six years we’ve probably had about 10 minutes’ downtime [with] Amazon and that’s been sporadic, so it’s been really rock-solid for us. One of our early challenges was to convince taxi companies that there was stability in the cloud, and we’ve proved that.”

“The [iCabbi] system brings users onto a level playing field with Uber by giving them the same tools, it’s a major step,” says Dundas. For example, customers automatically receive the make, model and registration of the taxi that will pick them up, improving their safety. With the app or through a URL sent by text they can also see the vehicle’s location – allowing them to be ready promptly and thereby reducing pick-up times – and rate drivers once their journey is complete. If they’ve already registered their details on the system they can pay by debit or credit card, cutting out the need to visit a cash machine late at night. This feature is the first Kelso mentions when listing the iCabbi features that have resulted in the biggest benefits for Glasgow Private Hire: “The easy integration within the iCabbi system for debit and credit payments for customers. A much better and easier to use booking app, and the ability for customers to also book a cab via ‘Web booking’. Also, the wider range of coverage our drivers are now choosing to work with means customers are waiting less time for their cab to arrive, which is always good!”

As the iCabbi platform is fully integrated into the company’s business processes it’s easy to maintain records. Dundas adds that because a dashboard with key figures is updated in real time it’s also easy for managers to spot any issues. The platform comes with some analytics packages, enabling users to see how many requests the company is receiving per zone, and this allows them to target specific areas with marketing campaigns. But despite all its technology-enabled digital functions there is still a voice element to the system. Operators can click on a driver’s icon on a map and the system will automatically call them. Dundas says: “if there’s a hiccup with one of the networks it’s possible to communicate with the drivers on their mobile phones to let them know.”

Dundas advises companies looking to adopt a similar system to get frontline employees on board. “You’ve got to get buy-in from the people on the shop floor and the drivers… Give them as much information as possible. You get them involved [in planning the transition] because the staff have been using systems for years, they can say ‘it would be nice to see this and this’ – they help fine tune the system… And you’ve got to get buy-in from your drivers as well. If you can get buy-in from your drivers you’re laughing.”

“Give yourself time and prepare properly. We did that and gave ourselves the best chance of a smooth migration,” says Kelso. Walsh agrees: “It’s a major move, there’s a lot of people to manage during the transition and rushing it is never a good thing.” Kelso highlights the “big difference between the admin side of the old system we had and iCabbi. Trying to prepare properly for the migration and making sure we had input all account, driver and vehicle information correctly was pretty time-consuming.”

What’s next for iCabbi? “It’s going to be data-driven because that’s what the competition are doing and that’s where the traditional taxi industry has been weak,” says Walsh. “Particularly in any city where we have big companies [as customers] we have incredible information about how the city operates, the flows of traffic. We have tens of millions of customer records, and our platform handles about two million bookings every week… We’ll soon be able to get into a more predictive mode where we’ll know what [taxi users] are going to do in the future. We’ll be giving our customers the tools to better understand their customers and acquire new ones. If one of their regulars stops using them they’ll be able to identify that and have tools in place to attract them back.”

Looking beyond the use of big data, Walsh mentions the large deals between Uber and Toyota on the autonomous vehicle front. He sees the possibility of iCabbi being used to support large fleets autonomous of vehicles purchased by big companies, rather than individuals looking to make extra money from their own cars.

Given the rise of the gig economy exacerbated by platforms like Uber, and the erosion of employee rights and regulations designed to protect the public, it’s encouraging to see that established taxi companies now have the tools to compete in today’s market while taking the appropriate measures to mitigate many of the risks associated with operating on-demand using public networks.

Lost, then found

iCabbi owes its existence to a flash of inspiration. “In 2009 I was on holiday in Portugal and got lost while out walking,” says its founder and CEO Gavan Walsh. “I had recently bought one of the first iPhones and had the idea that if I could book a taxi by pushing a button on my phone it would have solved my problem. None of us, myself included, had anything to do with the taxi industry, I just saw quite early on how technology was going to disrupt it. “We have 70 per cent market share in Ireland, and more than 50 per cent of taxi companies [with more than] 500 cars in the UK are our customers. They’re buying up all the small companies, there’s massive consolidation and they’re all growing. They see 15 per cent organic growth after adopting our solution, so we’re bringing a lot of value to our customers. They are the best promotional tools we have as they’re growing in a very dynamic environment with new threats, which means we’re doing a good job. In the US we have 40 large customers and 20 per cent of the Canadian market are already signed up with us.”

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