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Farewell To The Knowledge?

They chat non-stop, know exactly where they're going, and guarantee to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. They know when there's traffic ahead, and remember all sorts of sneaky little back routes. But is the hard-learnt ground-level acumen of the seasoned taxi driver, known as The Knowledge, about to be replaced by route-finding mapped from the skies? Could the Global Positioning Systems (or GPS) that claim to be the ultimate driver's accessory become the nemesis of the licensed cabbie?

"No way," chant the cabbies, almost in unison, when I ask five of them if they have installed GPS in their cars. The very question seems an affront to their topographical manhood. But I do detect a mood of uncertainty among the drivers around the Russell Square taxi shelter about the technological developments that threaten their way of life. Do any of their friends own them? "Nah," they say. "Too expensive."

But the cabbies can't entirely ignore the fact that regardless of cost - anything between £200 and £1,000 - GPS systems could be seen as a shortcut through the lengthy process by which they usually obtain their licence, which takes, on average, two to three years for a London taxi driver to earn and is only achieved after a comprehensive examination of the driver's ability to navigate any street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Hours of unpaid study, as well as the difficulty of remembering 400 routes between various points in the city centre and its immediate environs, lead to a high drop-out rate: somewhere between a third and a half of all trainees. Those that do stick with it have an exemplary grasp of their patch, and rightly consider their profession as a career, rather than a short-term job. Surely this lengthy study period will be made redundant by GPS, which will offer The Knowledge without the graft.

"I've tested all of them [GPS systems], and there aren't any that can react as quickly as a licensed driver," says Bob Oddie of the London Taxi Drivers Association, who suggests that no computerised system can take the place of a cab driver who thinks on the move. He also points out that, while a driver is punching in the details of his journey, valuable time is lost, meaning higher fares and delays on already congested city roads. Sat-Nav systems are also slow to react to diversions; drivers with The Knowledge can adjust their route at a moment's notice.

 
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