Former NY Governor David Paterson summed up today's announcement of new "audible touch screen taxi technology" by Councilman James Vacca and the taxi TV company Creative Mobile Technologies (CMT) this morning on the steps of City Hall quite nicely: "This is the first time I'll be able to use a credit card by myself in a taxi cab—and I was the Governor of New York!" Slowly and steadily, New York's fleet of cabs are being made accessible. Though handicap access is still tricky, this news should at least make the lives of 362,000 blind or visually-impaired New Yorkers just a little bit easier.
CMT currently runs about half of the TV screens in New York's 13,000 cabs—theirs are the ones with ABC videos—and since December they've been working with Councilman Vacca and the group Lighthouse International to make it easier for the blind and the visually impaired ride without help. Despite the short time period, however, the fruit of their labor—a totally new Taxi TV interface—starts hitting the streets in the next few weeks.
By May, according to CMT President Jesse Davis, the new interface will be deployed in the 1,500 cabs currently running the company's second-generation TV consoles. After that it will roll out on all of the company's older machines here. And then they plan to bring the new software to their cabs in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit and other cities. Hopefully the other taxi TV companies will follow suit with similar options (Lighthouse, who makes a card that is useful in the process, is certainly hopeful they will!).
To activate the alternative interface passengers have two options: They can ask their driver to turn the system on OR they can swipe a special new, free, card from Lighthouse in the cab's credit card reader (those interested can get one by calling 1-800-829-0500). The system can be turned on at any point, including after the meter has stopped. If you start it up at the beginning of your ride, however, the annoying videos immediately go away and a computer voice tells you the cab's medallion number. Over the course of the ride passengers can touch the screen to adjust the voice's volume and speed or tap to be updated on the current fare. Then, at the end of the ride, the screen becomes a simplified payment screen with audio cues.
The cues at the end have visually impaired riders like Ellen Rubin excited. "I've been ripped off by some guy who thought a 30 percent tip was a good idea," she quipped this morning. Like all taxi consoles, the new software will tell you if you have an "unusually large tip" (things we did not know and do not want to test: apparently, a lot of people input their ZIP codes instead of tip amounts when exiting cabs).
Regular riders are not given easy access to the alternative interface because, as Davis puts it, "CMT works because it is funded by partnership with ABC." However, he tells us, despite that relationship there are no current plans to add ABC audio content to the interface. There are, however, plans to allow riders in the future to tap the screen to find out where exactly the cab they are in is. Which will be an especially useful feature if you aren't sure the driver has actually taken you where they say they have. Also coming soon? Alternate language options as currently the system is only available in English. Neither the about to roll-out update, or those planned for the future, will cost drivers a thing.
Considering the trouble the city has had trying, or not, to make taxis handicap-accessible this development, which is both cheap and effective, is very promising. Watching the blind former Governor of New York gleefully hop in a cab and swipe his "swipe card" (backwards the first time!) to show off the new tech? Hard not to smile.