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Hailing a taxi -- by mobile phone

By CNN's Tony Campion

So far, only 500 taxis have been signed up to the scheme

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Service puts passengers in direct contact with available cabs via mobile phones.
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• What is "The Knowledge?" 
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Would you pay 1.60 ($2.50) to hail a cab by mobile phone?

LONDON, England (CNN) -- For the first time since taxis were licensed in London 350 years ago, there is a new way to hail black cabs: By mobile phone.

After dialling just one central number the service uses mobile-phone location technology to pinpoint the user to within tens of meters. It then locates the nearest available taxi by global positioning satellites (GPS) and routes the call directly to the taxi driver's hand-free mobile phone.

The developer Zingo, a division of taxi makers Manganese Bronze Group have invested a total of 8 million ($13 million) to-date in the new hi-tech taxi system.

"For centuries whenever you've wanted a black cab, you've had to go out onto the street to hail one, yet advances in communication technology over the last two decades have meant that you don't need to anymore," says Mark Fawcett, managing director of Zingo.

The cost of hailing a taxi by mobile phone is 1.60 ($2.50), which is added to the metered fare. It's a fee, Zingo believes, users will be willing to pay, especially late at night.

The taxi drivers also pay 15 ($25) a week for the extra business to Zingo. However at the present uptake it could be a number of years before the company makes a profit.

Little uptake, big plans

There are 24,000 taxi drivers in London and so far only about 500 of them have signed up to the Zingo system and the war in Iraq has also led the company to delay the launch until now.

Yet Zingo is hoping to tap into the 70 million taxi journeys that are hailed on the streets of London a year and convert a significant fraction to mobile-phone hailers.

The company is also talking of expansion plans to regions including North America and Asia.

"We've had people contact us to ask how it could fit into their country. Each city has a different taxi using culture, so we have to adapt the customer service to their site and we also have to adapt the technology as well," says Fawcett.

However, not everyone is impressed. Some taxi drivers are proud of the years they spend learning the intimate know-how of the streets of London called the "The Knowledge," and see technology as a threat.

"I don't want the bother of it," said one taxi driver. "I just don't think it'd work, maybe at night if it's busy coming out of theatres, restaurants, or if its hard to get a cab," said another.

"Obviously if a taxi arrives for example outside a busy pub and there's lots of people spilling out or maybe a theatre, it's possible you may get the wrong passenger" said Bob Oddy, of the London Taxi Drivers' Association.

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