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Why NOW is the time for the taxi industry to start talking autonomous taxi licensing

Image credit: DALL.E (AI generated)

The UK taxi industry is at a crossroads, facing a notable decline in licensed taxi drivers over recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic.

While local authorities have tentatively pushed to attract new drivers, it remains a challenge. This decline can be attributed to lengthy testing periods, high overheads, and an emerging factor that's often overlooked – the advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The recent Parliamentary King's Speech granted the Government new powers to test driverless vehicles on UK roads. Despite mixed results in other countries, the significant investment in the technology suggests that the autonomous dream is far from over. For potential taxi drivers, particularly the younger generation, the prospect of AV taxis casts doubt on the long-term viability of taxi driving as a career. With this in mind, regardless of overheads and the time taken to obtain a licence, the concern over their future before they even start weighs heaviest for some.

Public discussions and media coverage on how the taxi industry will specifically adapt to the introduction of AVs in the UK are sparse to non-existent. The technology often looks at how it will impact the passenger in a utopian fashion, but glosses over the damage it would cause to an established industry with over 300,000 taxi and private hire drivers in it.

The technology, though potentially years or even decades away from widespread implementation, demands early conversations, particularly involving the industry, for a smooth transition. To attract new drivers, the Government and local authorities should offer incentives or assurances for their future in an autonomous landscape. One proposed solution is capping the number of AVs for public hire and transferring the taxi driver’s licence to become an AV licence. This would therefore then provide value to a driver’s licence in a new way.

The introduction of a medallion system, similar to that used in New York, for autonomous vehicle licensing, as opposed to the current free market approach, could regulate this transition seamlessly. Local authorities could regulate AV licences owned by operators themselves, investors or individuals. Existing Hackney carriage licence holders could sell or lease their licences to investors or operators, sharing in the profits of a new era.

The public would gradually shift towards AVs for daily transport needs, reducing the reliance on privately owned cars. Authorities could sell additional licences to meet demand, generating revenue for local areas.

Any transition must be managed carefully. Pushing taxi drivers out of their trade without considering their investments and livelihoods would likely lead to protests and disenchantment.

Immediate investment in the industry would also likely stall, as questions such as why drivers should invest in new taxis or enter a potentially obsolete trade arise. Are we already entering that phase?

While the full realisation of AVs in the UK taxi industry remains uncertain, proactive and inclusive discussions are vital. It's not just about embracing technological advancement but ensuring that this transition supports and respects the diverse needs and contributions of all involved in the taxi industry.


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