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Old 08-14-2006, 05:57 PM   #1
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Originally posted by by Reuters via CNN.com - August 14@2006
London cabbies: Brain cell mightier than microchip

LONDON, England -- Satellite navigation systems may be the latest "must have" car gadgets but London cabbies, who have to pass the world's toughest taxi exam, are not impressed.

While hundreds of thousands of the electronic mapping devices are sold every year -- despite some reports of software glitches that have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks -- most cabbies in London regard them as largely irrelevant.

The increasingly sophisticated devices were allowed in London cabs for the first time earlier this year, but so far few drivers have opted for the hi-tech guidance systems, preferring instead to rely on their own brain power.

"I would say take-up has been about 4 or 5 percent, maybe higher for drivers doing the airport runs and those doing jobs in the London suburbs," said Bob Oddy, general secretary of the London Taxi Drivers' Association.

He said all London's 25,000 cab drivers take pride in having passed the grueling exam called "The Knowledge" in order to win the coveted licence that allows them to ply their trade.

Would-be cabbies have to learn 320 standard routes and be familiar with the city's myriad streets, roads and avenues as well as countless short-cuts and public buildings.

In total nearly all streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross near Trafalgar Square are covered, along with the capital's major arterial routes.

"Regardless of the salesmen's hype about these machines they cannot match the knowledge and experience of a good cabbie," Oddy said.

The test is so tough -- it can take up 34 months of study, albeit part-time, to pass -- that academic studies have shown part of the brain of successful applicants actually enlarges.

Scientists found London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with navigation, than other people.

The Knowledge requires drivers to know such details as the order of theatres along the main West End thoroughfares and where top hotels and government offices are located.

Oddy said a black cab driver will also know that a route at 7 a.m. might be congested an hour later and that longer routes on paper may actually be quicker.

London's lack of a grid system and the fact that licensed cabs can be hailed from any street means taxi drivers have to decide immediately which route to take rather than stopping to look at a map, or ask a controller by radio or to key in destinations into a satnav, said Oddy.

But that could change as the devices become easier to use and more advanced.

"I expect lots of drivers would accept satnavs in their cabs if the machines were really easy to use -- but to be honest if you have been cabbing for a few years you are not really thinking about what route to take, it's more like second nature," said cabbie David Jacobs.

"It's a source of pride that we know every short-cut, hotel or whatever. It always amazes tourists, especially American businessmen," said the 36-year-old who spent over 3 years studying, including driving every route on a moped with a street atlas propped open on the handlebars...

...Marshall-Thornhill said the devices can be invaluable for unfamiliar routes, but less useful for regular journeys such as those undertaken every day by cab drivers...

..."My prediction is yes, they will in the future become so advanced that 'The Knowledge' may become obsolete," he said.

"At the moment the devices don't have the sophistication about blocked routes, which short cuts are best etc ... so 'The Knowledge" is still going to have the advantage for the next 10-15 years."

He said that while acquiring "The Knowledge" was an impressive feat, it may not be necessary if in future all that information can be stored and easily accessed in a little gadget on a vehicle's dashboard.
Go to London Cabbies... to read the entire article.
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