How Taxi Magic works its magic

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Ordering a cab over the phone can be a pain. First, you’ll probably hear a couple of minutes of hold music. Then, unless you keep calling back over and over, you’ll never know how far away your cab is—or whether it's even on the way. And sometimes, your cab just never shows up.

If you dread calling a cab, you should try RideCharge’s free Taxi Magic app for iOS and Android. The app makes booking a cab about as interesting, informative, and interactive as a mundane task has ever been.

With a few taps in a smartphone app, Taxi Magic lets you book a cab, learn the driver’s name, see your cab approaching on a map in real time, and pay for the ride using your phone. Surprisingly, Taxi Magic doesn't require any additional technology be installed in cabs that already use one of the most common dispatching services.

According to RideCharge CEO Tom DePasquale, 70 percent of taxis in the U.S. already have Taxi Magic-compatible dispatch technology installed, including GPS tracking technology and the ability to tell whether a cab's meter is running. Taxi Magic taps into those existing taxi-dispatching servers to identify available cabs and let users watch their assigned cab come to them.

Taxi Magic also receives certain information from its own system, such as the user's pickup location, pickup time, and how the ride will be paid for. From the dispatch system, the app receives information on the location of the vehicle, whether the meter is turned on or off (which lets the system know if the driver decided to pick up another person), and whether payment for the completed ride has been received.

At the moment, Taxi Magic is up and running on 85 taxi-dispatching fleets in 45 states. The app currently taps into more than 30,000 cabs, and RideCharge plans on increasing that number to 60,000 by the end of 2013. However, you won’t find Taxi Magic in cities where hailing is the primary way of obtaining a cab, such as New York City; the app only works with dispatchers. The Bay Area is a hotbed for Taxi Magic-compatible fleets, as the app currently works with Luxor Cabs of San Francisco, Oakland’s Friendly Cab, and Yellow Checker Cab of Silicon Valley.

According to Taxi Magic Director of Marketing & Communications Matt Carrington, implementing Taxi Magic with an existing dispatch service does take some time. While Taxi Magic is able to get its system up and running on a compatible dispatch system within about a month, smoothing out the kinks can take the better part of a year, according to San Francisco's Luxor Cabs.

Once integration is complete, it's easier to offer the Taxi Magic service to all taxi companies that run the same dispatch system. Carrington says Taxi Magic is compatible with the eight major taxi-dispatch systems that comprise 70 percent of the U.S. market, making it easy for the company to scale quickly.

While several apps and online services exist for checking on public-transportation arrival times, RideCharge CEO DePasquale says that Taxi Magic is one of the first true online services for ordering personal ground transportation. "You can order some Amtrak tickets on the Internet," DePasquale tells TechHive, "But for cabs… you still call a dispatcher, and give them your address. And then, when you hang up, you just kind of hope that your cab comes."

How Taxi Magic works when you're booking a ride

For the user, booking a cab is simple once you've downloaded and installed the free app on your iOS or Android device. When you launch the app for the first time, you're prompted to enter your email address and provide information on how you heard about Taxi Magic (these steps are optional). After that, Taxi Magic uses your device's location info to determine which cab companies are available for booking through the app. If you happen to be in an area that Taxi Magic doesn't service, the app will offer up phone numbers of nearby dispatchers, and you can call from the app to book a cab the old-fashioned, less-magical way.

If you're in an area serviced by a cab company using Taxi Magic, the process is seamless. You'll see the cab company listed with a button that says "Book" beside it. You tap this button, input your pickup location (by either using your device’s location services, choosing an address from your contact list, choosing from a list of previous pick-up spots, or typing it in manually), and then enter your contact information, including a password which is used to create your Taxi Magic account.

Next, you'll choose how to pay—either in cab using cash or credit (if the cab allows it), or via the Taxi Magic app itself using your credit card. If you pay via the app, you'll be charged a convenience fee of between $1.50 and $1.99, depending on the municipality. Finally, you'll be asked to confirm your booking. You can change the time of pickup and get a fare estimate on the confirmation screen.

In my opinion, that's when the best part of Taxi Magic kicks in: Once you've booked a cab, you can actually watch it come to you. When a cab is dispatched, you receive an update informing you of the cab's number, location, and driver's name. You can also watch the cab approach you on a map. And, in the rare instance in which the driver decides to ditch you and pick up another person, you'll see it all happen, and you'll get another update when a new cab is dispatched.

Who's using Taxi Magic?

According to Charles Rathbone, Assistant Manager at San Francisco's Luxor Cabs, Luxor sends out between 4,000 and 5,000 Taxi Magic-dispatched cabs each week, mostly to the tech-savvy younger generation.

"The majority of our Taxi Magic business comes from the younger crowd, which is different from the traditional taxi dispatcher's older base,” Rathbone says. “So we've seen an influx of younger customers since implementing the app."

"Technologically, [implementing Taxi Magic] is one of the best things we've ever done," Rathbone tells TechHive. "It took us a while to integrate properly, because a modern taxi is full of electronics, and all of that stuff has to work together."

That said, Taxi Magic isn't without its drawbacks, both for cab riders and cab companies. The main complaint from customers is that the app sometimes gives them too much information; for example, if a cab driver goes rogue and picks up someone else, the customer can see that, Rathbone explains. Use of the app also comes at a significant cost to the cab company.

"Without going into too much detail, Taxi Magic cost us in the six digits last year," Rathbone says.

Part of that cost has to do with the popularity of the service. "Fleets pay us a fee for each ride we push to them using our technology," says Taxi Magic's Carrington. "Each fee is negotiated with the fleet... We don't disclose the exact amount of the dispatch fee, since it's unique to each fleet."

Luxor Cabs' Rathbone is quick to admit that the costs are largely worth it. The app satisfies people, brings new customers, and is convenient for everyone involved.

"A significant portion of our customers love it," says Rathbone, "They don't have to go through a call center, they don't have to be put on hold, and it works in the blink of an eye."

But hey, some people just aren’t the taxi type. If you want a similar app for a ride that’s a little more upscale, RideCharge recently launched a new service: Sedan Magic. It's only available in New York City right now, but RideCharge plans to expand Sedan Magic to more cities soon.

This story, "How Taxi Magic works its magic" was originally published by TechHive.

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