Interactive screen in a NYC taxi. Photo by Aaron Landry on Flickr.

You’ll be able to use credit cards in DC taxis by March 30. Instead of one single credit card machine in all cabs, drivers will get the freedom to choose their own technology. But they’ll still have to install an in-car display screen that regulators will choose; is that necessary?

The DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) went through a long bidding process to pick a single piece of technology to go in every taxi. This would take credit cards, show GPS information and ads (whose revenue the taxis would get a cut of), report taxi locations back to the DCTC, and more.

Verifone’s bid won, and DCTC started requiring taxis to install Verifone’s devices. But a challenge by rivals blocked the process, and on Friday the DCTC partly threw in the towel. Instead of forcing every cab to use Verifone’s device, they are instead going to just require that every taxi accept credit cards in some way; the specific technology is up to the driver.

Ron Linton told the Post’s Mike DeBonis that their approach changed because the marketplace changed:

“A year ago, when we came up with the ‘smart meter’ concept, it was a way to get credit cards and the other kind of technological things we wanted in the cabs quickly,” he said. “We couldn’t say, ‘Do this,’ because where would the drivers go? What would they get? Since then, there are six, seven, eight companies coming in here offering credit card services. .. They also are offering electronic reservations, which we want.”

If the DCTC picks a single piece of technology, everyone’s stuck with that choice, whether they made the best call or a bad one, and even if technology evolves.

In that case, doesn’t this same logic apply to other features as well? DeBonis writes that Linton plans a new procurement for the system that will have “an interactive screen, GPS navigation and ‘panic buttons’ to hail authorities.” Why should DCTC pick a single piece of technology to do this? Most of this is nice to have, but really not that central to a taxi rider’s experience.

One argument for a centralized technology choice, which Councilmember Mary Cheh made when passing the original bill which mandated these credit card, GPS, interactive screen, and panic button systems (and a standard color scheme for taxis), is that taxi drivers are often not the most cutting-edge when it comes to technology. Plus, since most people pick taxis based on whichever one shows up rather than choosing a company ahead of time, there isn’t really much incentive today for a taxi to install a better but more expensive system. It probably won’t draw more riders.

Therefore, that thinking goes, drivers will just install cheaper systems that could work poorly or break down a lot, and DCTC would spend a lot of effort monitoring and inspecting them, when it could just pick one system and ensure a baseline of quality.

But this also closes the door to innovation and opportunities for different vendors to compete. Any contract will likely run for a number of years, during which the manufacturer will have little reason to add features or make the devices better.

DCTC could just mandate outcomes rather than means, as it’s doing with the credit card readers. Drivers could just pick any screen vendor, so long as its display meets certain requirements, like showing the rider the current location and sending GPS data back to DCTC. Drivers can keep the advertising revenue as an incentive to install a screen.

On the other hand, this could mean an incentive for drivers to pick a screen that gives them the most money (maybe by being most intrusive with its ads) rather than being most useful for the rider.

What do you think is better — letting drivers pick their in-car screens, even if their incentives don’t match the rider’s, or having regulators pick it, which locks all cabs into a single technology for a long period of time?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.