The archetypical London Black Cab or Hackney Carriage has been a regulated fixture in the City of London since the time of Oliver Cromwell in 1654 when The Fellowship of Hackney Coachmen was founded, later to be superseded by Parliament, the Public Carriage office and now amalgamated into Transport For London.
The thing that makes a London Taxi unique is that you can hail an available cab in the street, or climb aboard at a taxi rank and you'll be taken efficiently to your destination by a highly trained and tested driver and charged fairly according to the taximeter on the basis of time and distance.
Originally back in the 1600's the form of transport available was a horse drawn carriage which would carry nominally either two or four people. The horse was the common motive power behind the cab until the introduction in 1897 of electric cabs which started the move towards mechanisation. The limited number of electric cabs were discontinued a few years later due to problems with safety and reliability (and to think that we regard electric vehicles as a new concept now) and in 1903 the first petrol powered cabs were introduced to London. From this point the horse, noble beast as it is was destined to be put out to pasture (sorry for the pun).
The driver of a modern London Taxi has to train for typically two to four years in order to learn over 45,000 streets and landmarks in the city and environs of London and the best routes from one part of the city to another and no satnavs are allowed in the test. This includes some pretty obscure landmarks as well as the better known and main hotels and theatres etc. For example FatBoys Diner here at Trinity Buoy Wharf is one of the designated landmarks, and we often see people on motor scooters with their maps in front of them driving up to have a look and learn the location. More obscure landmarks include the only Nazi Memorial in London which is outside no. 7 Carlton House Terrace, off Pall Mall; which is now the Institute of Contemporary Arts but used to be the German Embassy in London.
Traditionally once you've put in the hard slog of learning the roads and points of London then you'll have put a lot of miles on your moped (and likely been through a couple), physically enlarged the memory centres of your brain and after your final test can apply for the coveted London Taxi Driver's green badge and qualified yourself for a job for life that can reputedly earn you up to £100,000 a year depending on the hours you put in.
Unfortunately for the traditional hard working London cabbie, like the horse that pulled the carriage until about 100 years ago, there may well soon be one less organic entity involved in taking passengers from one part of the city to the other.
We think the perfect storm is brewing so far as this goes, and it is on a trajectory that looks to be unstoppable. Already we have social and connected Satellite Navigation in the form of products like Waze which are free for Android and iPhone users, and in the purchase of which Google invested over a billion dollars for good reason. Companies like Google are big investors in the automated vehicle and every time someone navigates with Waze, they learn most efficient routes, average speeds for the time of day, incidents to avoid, source and destination hot spots and much more. This accumulates to more knowledge than all the London Cabbies put together could comprehend. Right now it is useful for commuters to be able to get from A to B quickly and if it is free who is going to pay for a TomTom again? Part of the reason that it is free to use is that we are all helping Google to build their route information knowledgebase and data maps - so maybe we should be the ones who are paid to use Waze!
So the electric car, the connected car, the autonomous car, the Internet of Things, the cloud of route knowledge will all converge to make for a future automated taxi service that is on a par with, or better than, the current London Black cab service.
The difference between data, information and knowledge is in the processing and application. If you recall how IBM's Big Blue supercomputer beat Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov in 1997 this was a demonstration of brute force computing beating the same skill in a human. The same computing power multiplied and brought to bear on applications like transport will be as evolutional as it might be considered transformative.
Current state of the art in automated vehicles is still at relatively early stages, but the rate of evolution of the systems and vehicles is very substantial; such that the break out from research to production we think will be less than 5 years. It could be around 2020 or 2021 that hails the full introduction of the automated taxi to take you from one place to another in London.
The future of the black cab as we know it now - with a jolly cabbie - is thus somewhat grim unless they can evolve into the role of tour guide etc. However we'd suggest looking at how many are still driving horses and carriages in the same way. It is fun for tourists, but it is not economical transport.
We would go as far as suggesting that TFL (part of the UK government) should accept no new entries for people to start to learn 'the knowledge' from 2017. At the very least they should be given a firm equivalent of a Government Health Warning. We'd light-heartedly suggest they apply a sticker to the registration papers for the Knowledge to state:
This qualification is as likely to lead to employment as a Media Studies Degree'.
This would be fairest for current taxi drivers who will thus dwindle in numbers over time as they continue until retirement if demand holds that long.
Many people will defend the London Black Cab, but given the choice: If you want to get from A to B and an automated taxi will take you there as quickly, possibly more safely, for a lower cost, ultimately people will vote with their wallets.
I started writing this post in June 2015, after a barbecue with friends where one of the guests had just started on the Knowledge. I was too polite to share my thoughts then, so hopefully am making up for this now. I'm sorry it has taken me over a year to get back to complete it. In this time, the number of people who will have started their Knowledge training will have been around 1,000 (or at least that many pass their final exam annually - more start and never get to the end). This may be a thousand people with lots of investment in training ahead for not much reward down the track compared to previous generations.
The London Taxi is just one example of the impact of the scale of digital transformation in all areas of life that is ahead. We can't change what will happen which is almost predestined and luddites don't win, but if we can foresee the change, we can be forearmed. Some would say 'if you can't beat them, join them'... so if you're thinking of doing the Knowledge, we'd likely suggest that a similar amount of time spent learning computer programming might be a better long term investment. It is sobering to consider that the company that makes Black Cabs - London Taxis International, now owned by Chinese firm Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is rumoured to be already planning ahead for designs of driverless Black Cabs - and if they're not, they certainly should be else they'll be left behind by the competition.
At Onega we spend a lot of time keeping up to date with IT trends and keeping on top of the latest releases and news. We work with companies who are at either end of the digital spectrum to enable their businesses to be competitive and to use IT to a competitive advantage. More and more IT is evolving to be an integral part of a business as opposed to an add-on function. We must all look forward and anticipate that 'if this can be automated, it will be' and you're either on the road or sitting at the side of it in life. There are some exceptions but on the whole we can't deny the progress of the future.