Harry Incs, general manager of American Cab in Thousand Palms, shows the payment information module inside one of the cabs. Besides processing credit card transactions, the module provides entertainment and commericals. / Richard Lui,The Desert Sun

Harry Incs, general manager of American Cab in Thousand Palms, shows the payment information module inside one of the cabs. Besides processing credit card transactions, the module provides entertainment and commericals. / Richard Lui,The Desert Sun

The Palm Springs International Film Festival has just wrapped up; the Humana Challenge golf tournament is in full swing; tourists are flying into Palm Springs International Airport by the thousands.

It’s taxi season.

And this year, some of those visitors will be able to order a cab from their hotel, a restaurant or almost anywhere in the valley with a quick text from their smart phones.

Paying for rides will be equally easy, with a swipe of a bank card on payment devices available in taxis’ backseats.

Just in time for the winter season, cab companies in the desert are upgrading their computer systems, introducing new digital services for ordering, tracking and paying for cabs, all aimed at improving efficiency and service to riders to give their drivers an edge in the valley’s competitive market.

“As soon as the driver turns off the meter, this computer asks if I’m going to use a credit card or add a tip and a receipt prints out,” said Harry Incs, general manager of American Cab, which is the first in the desert to many of the new services.

“It’s all about picking up customers as quickly as possible and fairly to the drivers,” said Incs, a self-admitted computer geek and data security expert who designed and set up the company’s new system. “The best technology equates to the best customer service.”

All of American’s 70 cabs now come fully loaded with all the latest gadgets, said Incs, showing off a front seat tablet and back seat computer screen and card-swiper during a recent interview.

“The driver never has the card in his possession; all we see is the last four digits,” said Greg DaCosta, 54, of Desert Hot Springs, who’s been driving for American Cab for a year. “Customers seem much more comfortable.”

Lars Thane, 52, of Palm Desert, who’s been driving cabs for four years, likes the front-seat tablets where route maps pop up as soon as he accepts a call.

“It definitely saves on time,” he said. “There are obscure addresses.”

The new technology also helps drivers save fuel, which they pay for themselves, he said. It helps that American is converting its fleet from gas-guzzling Crown Victorias, Ford’s discontinued sedan that has long been the industry standard, to hybrid Toyota Priuses and more fuel-efficient minivans.

All the company’s cabs now have inside and outside surveillance cameras, Incs said, which can trigger an alert if a cab exceeds a certain speed and ensures fast response times from the company in the event of an accident.

Texting for a cab is another new service, using a smart phone app called Taxi Magic. (Update Aug 24, 2014 — Taxi Magic is now called “Curb”)

“You don’t have to talk to anyone. You can see on Google maps the cab driving to you,” Incs said.

While American is the first, Yellow Cab of the Desert is not far behind, with a similar technology upgrade almost complete and the company soon to launch a cab app as well, said dispatcher Peter Spilsbury.

“We’re retrofitting,” he said. “We now use the Samsung 3 tab that has the route to and from.”

New technology

Incs worked on the upgrade at American Cab for about a year, at a cost of $2 million and a lot of sleepless nights, he said.

“There’s fine-tuning, a lot of work with vendors and drivers. They’re the best source of data,” he said.

But, he said, he expects a fast return on investment. Since opening in 2009, American Cab has become the leading taxicab company in the valley, logging 46 percent of rides in the region last year, according to figures from SunLine Transit Agency, which regulates the desert’s three cab companies.

The taxicab industry originally picked up on computer technology in the 1980s, when automated dispatch systems were first introduced, said Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, an industry group based in Rockville, Md.

Company websites with online cab reservations and fare calculators are now an industry standard, he said.

But the spread of apps, such as Taxi Magic, and the more sophisticated systems for GPS tracking and back-seat credit card payments are still seen primarily in major urban centers, he said.

“The rush to this technology is happening as we speak,” LaGasse said. “There are roughly 45-50 cities, mostly major metro areas, that have this technology now. By the end of 2013, that number will more than double.”

Rolling out the technology in a smaller market, such as the valley, made sense to American Cab because of the upscale, urban profile of many of the region’s visitors.

“We have a lot of business conferences, successful business executives; they appreciate it. It leads to a very smooth customer experience,” DaCosta said.

Joyce Kiehl, media relations manager for the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees that taxi apps will give visitors another reason to like the desert.

With Palm Springs International Airport already on the top-10 list of stress-free airports, she said, “it solidifies us as a stress-free experience.”

“As soon as you can touch down, you can call your cab,” she said.

Matt Carrington, director of marketing for Virginia-based Taxi Magic, said Palm Springs is the company’s 51st market and among a handful of smaller markets where the app has launched.

The company has booked thousands of rides since American Cab took the app live in December, with the film festival driving a recent uptick in business, he said.

“In the last two weeks, the rides have doubled on a daily basis,” he said.

DaCosta thinks the new technology will continue to pull riders to American and give its drivers an edge.

“There’s more ways for them to make contact with us,” he said. “We’re doing better.”

Reporter K Kaufmann can be reached at k.kaufmann@thedesert sun.com or (760) 778-4622.