I had a Land Rover Discovery once. It was expensive to run, largely on account of the rear visibility. The blind spot was so large that, when reversing, you had to worry not only about lurking cats, shrubs and bollards but also bungalows. I felt proud whenever I went for six months without needing to replace one of the rear lights.
My present car, when reversing, beeps if it detects any obstruction, the frequency of beeps increasing as the object gets closer. This is a godsend when parking. (The only problem is that I sometimes expect these beeps when driving cars not similarly equipped: when I borrow my wife’s car I park like a Neapolitan.)
The parking sensor is a simple idea which should have been invented earlier than it was. Why so late? Car manufacturers’ profits from replacement lights? Male parking machismo? Or because, for their own self-aggrandisement, clever people are too busy aspiring to find heroic solutions to intractable problems, instead of fixing the humbler problems of daily life?
The philosopher Nassim Taleb has asked why the wheeled suitcase seems to have been invented after we had landed a man on the moon. A good question. After all, as Silicon Valley has found, progress often comes more from the accretion of many little ideas than from betting on one big one.
So while armies of engineers and lawyers are busy wrestling with Crossrail and High Speed 2, it has fallen to a trio of entrepreneurial London cabbies to develop an immediate and simple solution to the pain of travelling around London.
Hailo is a free taxi app which you can download to an iPhone or Android smartphone — and soon the Blackberry. (There is an equally good alternative, Get Taxi, also for black cabs, and also one called Kabbee for minicabs.)
Using the GPS on your mobile phone, it detects your location, then displays on a map on your telephone nearby black cabs which have signed up to the scheme. Also displayed is a live estimate of how long you might have to wait for the nearest driver to reach you.
When you want a cab, you press a button on the app and it contacts any nearby cabbies. A few seconds later, you are told a cab is on its way — and sent the registration number, name and mobile number of the driver who has accepted your job.
It is like hailing a cab the old-fashioned way, except the range within which cabs and passengers can find each other is no longer limited by line of sight. Rather than standing in the rain looking for a yellow light, you can finish your pint in comfort while you watch your booked cab approaching on the map. Your phone beeps once it arrives outside.
If you save your credit card details on the app, you don’t need to pay cash — a receipt is sent by email. And you can rate your driver using a star system, marking him down for poor taste in talk radio or insufficiently right-wing opinions.
At a stroke, this idea solves about ten different niggles about taking taxis. You’re never put on hold, or asked to repeat an eight-digit booking number from memory whenever you want an update — as if you’re bloody Rain Man. It’s also cheaper than booking by phone. There are also plans to enhance it in future: drivers headed home late at night may soon offer discounted fares back to the suburbs, rather than driving home empty.
At the moment these apps work best in central London. But please try using them when you can — and persevere. Because, as with all network-based technologies, the more people who use them, the better they get.