Pulling into a bus station in Laos, my bus was still moving at a minute speed. A man pried open the side door and stuck his head through à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. “Tuk tuk?” he asked with enthusiasm for a fare.
Anyone who has spent time in nearly any Asian country is likely familiar with the auto rickshaw. Known locally by many names (tuk-tuk, tricycle, etc.), they are a staple in many developing urban centers and the way of life for many people. Often providing quick and cheap fares in cities with badly congested traffic, these smaller vehicles can push through where normal cars cannot.
Recently, people are recognizing a problem with them, though. As one article puts it, “[t]hree-wheelers have not been properly regulated. On the roads they chug out black fumes and obnoxious levels of noise. Across Asia, populations are taking note.”
Many new regulations are being put into place regarding such vehicles. In Delhi, only cleaner, natural-gas engines are allowed. Indonesia has had the same rule for new imports since 2006. In Bangkok, Thailand registration of new tuk-tuks is no longer allowed.
In other places, new policies are being made to usher in a newer generation of much cleaner auto rickshaws. For instance, in Luang Prabang, Laos, authorities are pushing for an entire system of electric auto rickshaws, complete with a unique charging infrastructure. A similar push was being made in the Philippines where “[t]he government in Manila has teamed up with the Asian Development Bank on a $500 million project to get 100,000 electric-powered three-wheelers driving.”
What does this mean for the manufacturers? Well, it’s a potentially massive market and many are already starting to get a foothold.
In Luang Prabang, a Japanese company named Prozza is supplying the initial batch of 14 electric three-wheelers. Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturer Haier is considering manufacturing such vehicles in Laos in part because of its low cost, abundant electricity resources.
Japan-based Terra Motors is already making a large dent in Bangladesh and hopes to sell 30,000 units by the end of 2015. They have lessened the cost to consumers by using older rechargeable lead batteries instead of newer technology. Terra Motors had also expressed interest in taking on Manilla’s push for 100,000 electric rickshaws, but stopped due to lack of action by local authorities.
One article states the companies taking on these initial manufacturing endeavors are not engaging in too much financial risk because of the “low cost of entering the business, compared with cars. Three-wheelers are relatively simple to build, requiring no seat belts, doors or windows. Nor do they require expensive crash tests, which helps reduce development and production costs.”
However, the same problems of all electric vehicles persist, namely range and charging time. For example, the Prozza Pecolo tuk-tuk in Luang Prabang can travel about 40km, but takes several hours to charge.
To deal with this, a charging infrastructure is being introduced alongside Luang Prabang’s tuk-tuks. When a battery is near depletion, the driver can go to one of the charging stations, switch out the battery for a fully charged one in a matter of minutes, and leave the other battery charging.
However, it seems that these budding markets are encouraging others around the world. For instance, Kawasaki’s ElecTrike Japan is focusing on creating such electric vehicles domestically for the moment, but with plans to move into the South East Asian Market in the future.
Likewise the initial success of these vehicles has inspired French and German manufacturers Renault and Mercedes-Benz to begin producing 1-2 passenger ultraminis as well. Although whether or not these will be three-wheelers is yet to be seen.