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Technology

Before They Can Drive a Taxi, London's Cabbies Have To Commit the City To Memory in a Rigorous Test Called the Knowledge (cnet.com) 295

In their fight against Uber, London's taxi drivers claim a distinct advantage: They must forgo GPS and navigate the huge city entirely from memory. CNET: Put in place in 1865, the Knowledge exam requires cabbies to navigate between any two points in central London without following a map or GPS. It can take four years to learn the information and pass a series of stringent oral tests. It's a grueling process unmatched by any training taxi drivers have to face anywhere else, and it's the most arduous thing Pearson's [Editor's note: a driver; used as anecdote in the story] ever done. "My uncle was a cab driver and he encouraged me to give it a go," he said. "But I still didn't realize how hard it would be."

Despite the difficulty of mastering it, cabbies proudly defend the Knowledge as a critical part of their job, something technology can't replace. They say it sets them apart from ride-hailing services like Uber, whose drivers don't have to learn the Knowledge, and they believe it allows them to deliver a superior level of service. But ever since mapping apps arrived on phones and GPS-wielding Uber drivers exploded into London in 2012, the Knowledge has faced a volatile future. Should cabbies have to spend years of their life memorizing every inch of London when they can simply punch in a destination on a screen and be guided? Absolutely, say the drivers I spoke with.

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Before They Can Drive a Taxi, London's Cabbies Have To Commit the City To Memory in a Rigorous Test Called the Knowledge

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  • by jm007 ( 746228 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:32PM (#56084397)
    ...will be used for good?

    only useful for helping a customer? it would never be used to stretch a ride out to bump up the fare a bit, no?

    just having the knowledge guarantees nothing.... a tool can cut both ways
    • there have been plenty of reports of sat nav taxis taking customers on a merry dance to get to the destination.
    • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:57PM (#56084577)

      Taxi drivers are regulated in London, they invest a great deal of time and money in gaining The Knowledge so they can do the job, and part of that is being required to identify efficient routes. If an inspector takes a ride and the cabbie tries what you're suggesting then their career is in real danger. There aren't many people that stupid in the industry.

      • But wouldn't it make more sense for the cab driver to use a computer to find the best route? The computer can know much more about the current traffic conditions and provide a much better route. The cab driver has to be smart enough to know when the computer is making a really bad error, but for the most part, the computer will probably come up with a really good result. You might end up with cab drivers who are better at being drivers or who are more courteous to the public rather than picking only people

        • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @02:37PM (#56084899)

          But wouldn't it make more sense for the cab driver to use a computer to find the best route?

          If a computer existed that was any good at doing that, then yes. But right now, they aren't even close. You are placing way too much faith in their ability to know current traffic conditions and adapt optimally to them.

          This is a theory-vs-practice issue. In theory, all of these objections could be resolved. There's no inherent technical limitation that says you couldn't do the sort of thing I assume you're imagining here. But in practice, most in-car navigation systems are pretty awful in a city like London. In many cases, even if you don't know the back roads and detours, you really are better off just planning a sensible route in advance and sticking to it unless something obviously catastrophic has happened. And if you do know the roads the way a London cabbie does, you can adapt on the fly way better than any current navigation systems anyway.

        • You don't know London, I get it. You don't care about the traffic conditions right now. You care about the traffic conditions in 5 minutes. And believe me, there can be a HUGE difference between those two things.

          • You don't know London, I get it. You don't care about the traffic conditions right now. You care about the traffic conditions in 5 minutes. And believe me, there can be a HUGE difference between those two things.

            The computer should be better at that than a human, too.

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          But wouldn't it make more sense for the cab driver to use a computer to find the best route? The computer can know much more about the current traffic conditions and provide a much better route. The cab driver has to be smart enough to know when the computer is making a really bad error, but for the most part, the computer will probably come up with a really good result. You might end up with cab drivers who are better at being drivers or who are more courteous to the public rather than picking only people

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      Or bettter yet, used to track marketing data. Then sold. How many people would you like to know you like strip clubs, retail MJ, or take a lot of trips to the liquor store? It could have job and insurance implication.

    • Many a fare knows the way as well as the cabbie. Trying to stretch a ride will get you some outrage.

      Now, lots of fares at Heathrow can be duped. That is why many cities legislate airport rides and regulate fees.

      • Any place and time with nontrivial traffic, the most direct reasonable route, and the fastest reasonable route, tend to differ. I tend to know both (without GPS) for anyplace within about 25 miles of me. If I were a cabbie (or Uber driver) I'd let my fare know and let him or her choose.
  • by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:32PM (#56084401)
    Driving while looking at a GPS is clearly more dangerous than driving without looking at a screen of some kind. I prefer to take taxis because they tend to know where they're going more than the fake-taxi people (Uber, Lyft).
    • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )
      That's why you have vocal instructions, a not recent at all innovation that allows you to keep your eyes on the road while still following GPS directions.
      • Anyone who's tried to navigate central London using a SatNav's audible instructions knows all too well that the instructions are frequently too early, too late, or just plain confused by unusual road layouts, resulting in ambiguous or misleading spoken instructions. I have reached a point on several occasions where I have completely turned off a navigation system in London because it was not only unhelpful but actively dangerous.

        I am now firmly of the view that any in-car navigation devices with sound shoul

  • Autonomous vehicles will have no problem passing the Knowledge.

    This problem will solve itself within a decade.

  • My son is a Fireman and 10 years ago decided he wanted to drive the truck. He had to be able to drive to any address in the city without using a map or navigation app. He spent a lot of time staring at the big map mounted on the wall.
    • Wannabe cabbies spend a lot of time (years in some cases), driving around London on a scooter/moped with a map on their knees learning the city.

      There's actually detectable changes in the brain [scientificamerican.com] of cabbies who've trained for The Knowledge.

  • by tsqr ( 808554 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:39PM (#56084449)

    I was in London last year, and used Uber extensively. Most of the time it worked out fine, but there were a few spectacular failures. In particular, a ride to Kensington Palace dropped us off at a point that was more than a half hour's walk from the Palace. As we walked, we passed an intersection that was only a few hundred yards from the Palace entrance. I'm pretty sure a real cab driver would have dropped us at the closest point.

  • by johannesg ( 664142 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:39PM (#56084453)

    If it were my livelyhood and I already put in the effort, I'd see that as an excellent way to keep out competitors. But you'd be batshit insane to actually _want_ to learn all that crap if you were just starting out, considering how much the city has grown since 1865, and how easy GPS (possibly with live updates on road conditions) makes things nowadays...

    • by djinn6 ( 1868030 )

      ... you'd be batshit insane to actually _want_ to learn all that crap if you were just starting out, considering how much the city has grown since 1865

      Eventually it will be impossible. Look at Shanghai, it's 3 times the size of London by population and 4 times the area, with constant construction that makes whatever you learned a year ago completely obsolete. If your Shanghai cabbie doesn't have a GPS, get ready to give them turn-by-turn directions.

      • I spend quite a bit of time in Shanghai - I lived there for 6 years, and I have family there. I was just there last week. Used cabs several time, just told them the name of the business or the cross streets I wanted and we got there, no issues. No GPS, no nav needed... As impressive as London cabbies are, Shanghai cabbies (especially those with 3+ stars) are a whole different league!
  • by MindPrison ( 864299 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:41PM (#56084473) Journal

    There was a documentary about this on TV, not sure what channel, but I saw it just a few days ago, about how the size of the actually grew on those learning to sharpen their memory like this. Scans where taken before and after, and the results where quite astonishing.

    I kinda believe it too, I got a job at a huge corporation, where I was set to do an almost seemingly impossible task - namely learn 25K pages of information about their infrastructure so I could properly map and redirect requests to where it was needed + solve IT solution tasks on the spot if possible instead of redirecting, the answer where all in these 25K pages. At first it was like, I'm never ever gonna be able to do this, after a month I was - I can't believe I can actually remember this much, now I actually believe it can be done, I still have to console the 25K pages manual - but it's rarer and rarer, and my problem solving rate is up to 96% correct now.

    What's even more interesting, is that this job has had a profound effect on my private life as well. I've done much more to clean up my life, making sure important things like personal pension, insurance, savings, purchases are done correctly instead of wasting it on "oh, I don't care". My gaming life is amazing in comparison to before, I've reached levels I couldn't even dream of later.

    So there's something to this!

  • by hsqueak ( 1068014 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:42PM (#56084475)

    Anyone who's ever used a London cabby will value the brevity of the journey when you ask for a recommended hotel near a certain landmark/street, or if you're in a rush to get to a meeting in an obscure area and there's a traffic jam on the normal route. It's shocking how little local knowledge can be required elsewhere.

  • by dinfinity ( 2300094 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @01:43PM (#56084483)

    This has been the case since 1865.

  • Driver: Well, first you take a right on...

    Sherlock: Wrong, next.

  • Well, in this case the depth of knowledge is not a safety issue, as it might be in someone's fireman example above. At most, it provides customers with a sense of confidence that their driver knows where they're going -- which some people value more, some people less.

    I would say, let customers decide whether this knowledge is worth it by giving them the choice. Otherwise, it's a barrier to entry to a restricted group of drivers so that they enjoy a monopoly and the power to price their taxi services a
    • Well, in this case the depth of knowledge is not a safety issue, as it might be in someone's fireman example above.

      That's debatable. Bad instructions from a navigation system can be horribly distracting, and you get plenty of bad instructions from every nav system I've ever tried while driving in London.

      Otherwise, it's a barrier to entry to a restricted group of drivers so that they enjoy a monopoly and the power to price their taxi services accordingly.

      Taxi fares in London are on a meter and regulated by law.

  • Teacher: Are you telling me you memorized that fact when anyone with a cell phone can find it out in 30 seconds?
    Martin Prince: I-I I've crammed my head full of garbage!
    Teacher: Yes, you have.

  • There's the notion that passing the test signals an ability roughly correlated with character and intelligence that provides a first pass filter for applicants. Whether greater emphasis on this notion is still worth the premium is certainly debatable.
  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Wednesday February 07, 2018 @02:06PM (#56084661) Journal

    Do you want the whole world to know your spending habits? Who you associate with? Etc. If you use Uber/Lyft etc. and the surveillance state will love you.

    Scenario: you stop off at a restaurant to pick up some take out. 15 minutes after you leave a bomb goes off. Of course if you did nothing wrong you have nothing wrong to worry about. Right?

  • Yes,it might be nice to be able to say "that chineese restaurant next to the flowershop across the church" and have the cabby jnow where it is, but in all my life I had an address when I took a taxi.

    What I like is the cars themselves, made specially as a taxi, not just a car where you sit inthe back. Much easier to get in and out of. THAT is service I like to pay for. Bit like first and second class in a plane.

  • Last time I rode a cab the guy seemed to have no knowledge of the city whatsoever and I had to give him specific directions the entire way down to what lanes to drive in. He basically used me as his GPS.
  • Sounds like a good marketing point for using cabbies. So, let the market decide. If I want to use Uber, let me. If I prefer cabbies, because of their extensive city knowledge, then that's my choice.

    So, cabbies, stop with whining about Uber. Market your strengths!

  • It's a grueling process unmatched by any training taxi drivers have to face anywhere else,
    It id the same in every european city I know about ...
    OTOH London is particular big.

  • In any other job, you have to carry the qualifications of that job. If I'm a software developer, I have to know and understand the languages which I work with, in great detail, if I don't, then I'm really just a script kiddy, taking code off stack overflow. Why would or should the taxi industry be any different?
  • Of course anyone is going to claim they are absolutely indispensable when their livelihood is challenged. In the early 20th century, white-only unions lobbied for a minimum wage to shut out black construction workers who were willing to underbid the prevailing union wage.
  • The Knowledge was obviously a great idea in the London of 1865, when the only way to be a cabdriving professional wa to know every inch of the city. It's also great for screwing the passenger in more or less subtle ways. Given an intimate knowledge of city streets, you "take the passenger for a ride" without making even a long-term resident aware that this is what you're doing.

    The psychology behind The Knowledge is exactly what kept Morse code in use as a hazing mechanism in ham radio for years after it had

    • Uberâ(TM)s app *routinely* picks long and slow routes in London. I frequently have to redirect the driver based on my own knowledge or Waze. And of course thereâ(TM)s absolutely zero transparency about fare calculations â" I have to trust that the fare was calculated the way it was promised to be calculated. Meters in black cabs are regulated by a third party, by contrast.

  • in 20 years self driving cars will make this an amusing footnote in history. Like the static snow effect on old TVs, floppy disc drives and leaded gasoline.
    • 20 years? that seems insanely optimistic. I doubt self driving cars will be prolific enough for any of this to be a historical for at least another 40 or 50 years.
  • As someone who lived in London for a few years, and who took rides in London cabs in numerous occasions, this come across as a desperate attempt by the London cab lobby to delay the inevitable. Uber and Lyft is already pointing out that the official cab service is overpriced, and not all that good. But this is just the beginning, for it won't be too long now until autonomous cabs, far better at memorizing the city ways and plotting routes, will be taking over. The death knell for London cabbies has already
  • they believe it allows them to deliver a superior level of service.

    Well what is the problem then? The market will reward them if this is a level of service customers value.

  • by whitroth ( 9367 ) <whitroth@[ ]ent.us ['5-c' in gap]> on Thursday February 08, 2018 @01:20PM (#56089981) Homepage

    Yeah, like the time a few years ago when a GPS had my agent lead us an extra 30 mi or so on the DC Beltway by going the *wrong* direction.

    Or the times that it, or Google maps, *always* wants to get you onto an Interstate, rather than using the through streets that the natives know.

    And some idiot thinks that a London cabbie doesn't know if a bridge is out? Better than the GOP? Or why they should, or should not, go down that street?

    Real World knowledge trumps what you're told by someone who wasn't there.

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