For about 24 years, Paul Houston could not leave his car if he wanted to make money during shifts that could last up to 12 hours.
Houston, a Columbia cab driver who goes by the nickname “Cowboy,” only knew about calls if he waited in his cab for notification.
But Capitol City Cab, the company Cowboy works for, is using the latest technology to make the job easier – and safer – for drivers. The company recently started using portable tablets so its drivers can receive calls even if they leave their cab to get a cup of coffee, use the bathroom or simply go for a walk.
“Maybe I can lose some of this,” Cowboy joked as he patted his stomach.
The tablets offer a range of other conveniences: From GPS turn-by-turn navigation through a maps application to cameras and emergency buttons for safety.
Cab driver Howard Winslow, nicknamed “Papa Smurf” for his resemblance to the cartoon character, started as a cab driver in 1970.
“Back then all we had was a map and a flash light and good luck,” Winslow said.
And gas was 65 cents a gallon, he said.
The cab company can’t do much about gas prices, which are stuck above $3 a gallon, but the tablets should bring more satisfaction to the job, general manager Bill Grooms said.
“This allows for a more healthy and happy cab driver,” Grooms said.
Chris Hellerman operates the dispatch for the calls, and she said she loves the tablets because they make everything quicker and more effective.
Calls go out to drivers “as soon as I hit that button,” she said.
The tablets also:
• Eventually will eliminate the two-way walkie talkies the drivers use to communicate with a push-to-talk application that will be used instead.
Have wireless handheld printers that drivers can hand to passengers to use to pay. That way the driver never has to touch a passenger’s credit card.
• Have a camera application, which drivers can use to record or take pictures for security of both drivers and passengers.
The camera does not run constantly but a driver can use it if they feel the need.
“Seasoned cab drivers have that sixth sense about them,” Grooms said.
There also is an emergency button on the tablets that work as a silent alarm to the dispatch office, which will be able to track where the cab is at all times.
Adjusting to the tablets has been easy – even for drivers like Winslow, who describes himself as technology-challenged.
His assessment? It’s “slick.”
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657 or @cassielcope on Twitter.