Stepping into a taxi is like getting into a storybook. The journey could be short or long, but it is always an experience; at times enriching, at times sad, at times funny, at times frustrating and sometimes introspective. There is usually something to talk about. And a story to take back home.
So when I read about Nutonomy, the first driverless taxi running trials in Singapore and Uber launching its fleet of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania today, there was a tinge of melancholy. Driverless or fully automated cars have been in the realm of possibility for over half a century. But the push has really been in the last decade. Tesla, Google and now even Apple — apart from most traditional car manufacturers — have been working on that perfect autonomous car and internal test runs have been on for a couple of years. In May, a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S raised safety concerns with autonomous cars. An issue manufacturers are confident to overcome. But what most are not talking about is the human factor or the lack of it.
Foremost are economic concerns, genuine concerns about loss of jobs. What will taxi drivers, several from an older generation, do when driverless taxis take their place? Can a city or a country afford to have tens of thousands of humans unemployed and displaced by bot-cabs almost overnight? Is there a plan in place to re-train them for other jobs?
In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Centre on 'Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Future of Jobs', 52% of the expert respondents felt that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. Though at the same time they anticipated that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by digital agents. However the other half, 48% of the experts, “envision a future in which robots and digital agents would have displaced significant numbers of blue and white collar workers.” Many of them felt this will lead to “vast increases in income inequality, and masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order”. And that is the real concern.
For drivers the world over, their taxi is more than a means to an end. It is a part of their daily lives, a connect to a myriad of people; young and old, students, musicians, bankers and even the unemployed.
For the 12 years I worked in Mumbai, my morning ride to office would often be in a kaali-peeli, or the black and yellow taxis that continue to ferry passengers, even after radio cabs hit the streets.
For the 30,000 odd drivers, these kaali-peelis are their pride and part of their lives. Drivers spend their time, money and effort caring for and even decorating their taxis. In fact, it is not uncommon to hail a cab with bright, floral upholstery, neon lights with beads or flowers over the windshield. Kitch or understated, each taxi has a personality. More often than not, the decorative interiors are a conversation starter between the driver and the passenger; conversations that meander into hometowns, native villages and mother tongues.
Each day a group of drivers can be seen waiting outside offices, knowing exactly who their client is. For taxi drivers who ferry journalists like us, the conversation is usually around the news of the day, ending with a note on the state of the nation. For drivers at Fort, Mumbai’s financial district, the conversation revolves around the stock market and the state of the economy. They may not hold specialised degrees, but most taxi drivers are abreast of current affairs (often spotted reading a paper while waiting for passengers). It is easy to slip into an engaging conversation with them.
But the connect between the driver and the passenger is not just a Mumbai phenomena alone. I’ve had interesting exchanges with taxi drivers abroad, including Singapore — the first country to allow customer trials of driverless taxis. Chronicles of taxi-drivers make for fascinating books and movie scripts.
I am not against technological innovation. It has uncomplicated our lives (though the argument to the contrary cannot be disputed either). It has allowed us to do more with our time, but as technology connects us faster, it is also disconnecting face to face interactions and with it human emotions. Driverless taxis, powered by robotics, is a case in point of how efficient, yet clinical our lives are getting.
Take a moment and picture this. You get into a taxi after a long day at work. On your drive back home, it starts raining — the first showers of the monsoon that people across India wait for after a harsh summer.
In which cab would you rather be?
The author is a senior television journalist and anchor who now runs her independent communication consultancy. She is consulting editor at Firstpost and tweets @rupalimehra