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Plan for high-tech cabs draws fire

Newsday | May 10, 2005

NEW YORK - New Yorkers will soon be hailing high-tech taxis.

Starting this fall, passengers might be able to watch news on a back seat screen, pay with a credit card and, thanks to a wireless tracking system, retrieve lost belongings that might have otherwise been gone forever.

Plans call for major changes on the other side of the partition, too. A small monitor will allow drivers to learn about traffic tie-ups and receive reports on the locations of waiting passengers, say, after a Lincoln Center performance.

But some fear the technology, which will be required for all 12,787 yellow taxis, exacts a high price for riders and drivers: loss of privacy and peace.

Under the plan, taxis will be linked to a wireless network that beams its exact location to the Taxi & Limousine Commission. Medallion owners themselves must pay for the upgrades, estimated to be at least $2,000 per car, but need not permit advertisements that are planned for the screens.

"It's completely Big Brother-esque," said Bhairavi Desai, staff coordinator of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents about 5,000 drivers and is considering legal action to halt the move.

Taxi officials say the upgrades only are beneficial: helping drivers get more fares and avoid traffic while allowing passengers to enjoy their trips more, catching things such as news, movie listings and weather reports. Another perk is a plan to help fares track lost belongings.

The commission first approved the upgrades in March 2004, when it raised fares 26 percent. It has since solicited bids for the project, with a June 6 deadline. Commission Chairman Matthew Daus sees a pilot program starting in November.

The connectivity bothers some taxi drivers who prize working without a boss looking over their shoulders. There are no plans to allow the tracking, which might rely on GPS, to be shut off when off-duty. The tracking also will be used for law-enforcement purposes.

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