ABU DHABI // About 80 per cent of taxis in the emirate have been upgraded as part of a vehicle replacement programme by the industry regulator.
The scheme, which was launched in 2008 by TransAd, has replaced 6,900 silver taxis so far, with 1,325 old independent taxis to be upgraded by the end of next year.
Some passengers say they have noticed significant progress.
Mohammed Afrah, a Palestinian resident of the capital who commutes daily by taxi, said response time had improved.
"I used to call the centre and never hear back," Mr Afrah said. "Now I always get a call back from a taxi driver, and an SMS with his name and number within 10 minutes."
The silver taxis have Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) that, among other things, manage drivers' profiles and speed.
The MDT also features an advanced booking system, which allows automatic taxi assignment based on proximity.
"Using GPS, the system tracks down all the available free taxis in your location," said a senior call- centre official with TransAd. "This is usually done within a 5km radius."
Once the system tracks down the available taxis, a message appears on the drivers' screens with the details of the customer. Drivers can then accept the request.
"The system then assigns the closest taxi from those who accepted," the official said. "Everything is done automatically as it is all programmed into the system."
Another feature of the MDT allows it to automatically fine drivers and freeze their meters should they commit a traffic offence.
Drivers are not allowed to exceed 80kph on inner-city roads, and 120kph on motorways and outer roads.
Ashraf Rahman, a driver with Tawasul, said he avoided speeding as exceeding 120kph carried a fine of Dh100 for the first minute, Dh200 for the second minute and Dh500 for the third.
After that, his meter would be frozen and he would have to go to the TransAd office.
"It's a huge inconvenience and it's a lot of money," Mr Rahman said.
Fines are deducted from drivers' salaries, the official said.
The complaint system works in a similar way. It immediately notifies the driver when a customer lodges a complaint.
"The driver then receives a message requesting that he come to the TransAd office within 48 hours," the official said. "If he doesn't within this time, his meter is frozen."
Some drivers say they are still pressured by passengers to drive quickly.
"Sometimes if a customer is in a hurry he will tell us to drive quickly and that he will pay the fines," said Manjur Ahmed, a Bangladeshi driver with Tawasul. "It's happened to me before and the passenger paid me the fine."
Mr Afrah said the only thing that made him hesitate to book a taxi was the "no guarantee policy".
"It's frustrating when I need to go the airport and they say that even if I book in advance a taxi is not guaranteed," he said.
Passengers say that in these cases call-centre operators advise them to order a private taxi from Al Ghazal. Al Ghazal is one of TransAd's six silver taxi franchises but also provides private hire cars.
These taxis charge a flat fee of Dh140 for a one-way trip to Abu Dhabi International Airport, compared with the regular metered silver taxis that cost about Dh60.
The official said while booking a taxi may be difficult in outlying areas, in the city there is a response almost 95 per cent of the time.
"Response is dependent on if there are nearby taxis in your area, and that is why there is no guarantee," he said.
In February one of TransAd's franchises, QLink, reportedly shut down because it could not meet the minimum 1,021-vehicle quota. Officials said there were no plans to add another franchise.
"The current franchised fleet of taxi cars is sufficient to cover the transportation needs of the emirate, especially given that more public transport options, such as bus transportation, are available in the emirate and will be further developed in the future," a statement from TransAd said.