The taxi industry is looking at a range of initiatives to improve service for customers, ranging from training drivers as tour guides to adopting larger vehicles. One program already proving popular gives priority to pregnant women entering labor.

The pioneering pregnancy-priority dispatch service by Tokyo taxi company Nihon Kotsu Co. has caught on in the capital, with half of all taxis now offering similar schemes.

“Half of pregnant women in Tokyo are registered with us for the service,” Nihon Kotsu President Ichiro Kawanabe said. “They probably feel assured, especially under tough weather conditions such as heavy snow, because we dispatch cabs to them before anybody else.”

The service began in May 2012. A woman who is pregnant informs Nihon Kotsu in advance of her home address, hospital and due date. When she calls for a cab, the nearest one is swiftly located and dispatched. A route from her home to the hospital appears on the car navigation screen of the cab.

The 24-hour service is useful as the timing of labor can be unpredictable, and ambulances are not generally used. In March, cabs were dispatched to an average 25 women in labor per day, a chief operator of the company’s call center said.

It takes eight minutes on average for a cab to show up at a client’s home following the phone call to Nihon Kotsu. In the past three years, three women even delivered babies in the cab on the way to hospital, Kawanabe said.

The service has become widely known among pregnant women through word of mouth or recommendations by hospitals. Other taxi companies have since entered the market.

The “labor taxi” service is just one of the changes taking place in the industry.

Another change is the collaboration between taxi companies and police through a crime prevention system called “Takkun,” which involves fitting video data recorders to vehicles.

The devices are attached to the windscreen and record images in front of the vehicle and inside it, storing the recording for two days.

A serial assailant was arrested after a cab recorder captured the stabbing of a man in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, in March 2014.

Taxi companies in Tokyo have now installed the recorders in 96 percent of their vehicles, originally for the purpose of coping with accidents and deterring trouble between drivers and customers.

They also began dispatch services using a smartphone version of the Takkun system last year. As the smartphone app involves location information, it can help with details for crime investigations, industry officials said.

The taxi industry plans to set up an education program for drivers to enable them to serve as foreign-language tour guides ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Given the risk of violating the nation’s licensed guide law, the industry aims to apply for a special zone under the government’s national growth strategy before launching the program.

“While some 30 cab drivers in Tokyo have scored more than 700 points on the Test of English for International Communication, we would like to increase the number to 300 or more by the Olympics,” Nihon Kotsu’s Kawanabe said.

Automakers, meanwhile, are developing new taxi models for the Olympics. One of them is Toyota Motor Corp.’s JPN Taxi, which resembles the so-called London black cab.

The JPN Taxi hybrid minivan has a height of 170 centimeters so larger people can more easily get in and out. It also has big windows so passengers can enjoy the view and is spacious enough for them to board with suitcases. In addition, it can accommodate wheelchair users.

Taxi companies plan to start introducing the JPN Taxi in 2017. They expect to have reduced fuel costs from its LPG-electric hybrid model.

The biggest problem for the taxi industry is hiring drivers, but an increasing number of young people are joining the industry straight out of university.

“Now that the average taxi driver is 58 years old, we would like to step up the recruitment of young people fresh out of school,” Kawanabe said.

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