High Tech Pedicab (Rickshaw) to be Trialled in Nepal
Visit any Asian city and you are bound to hop in a rickshaw or pedicab to get around.
They are an indispensable form of transport for millions in the developing world, though many are old, rundown and inefficient.
But now the ubiquitous three-wheeler is about to accelerate into the 21st century.
Thailand has the tuk-tuk, Indonesia the becak. In Vietnam it’s the cyclo, and India and Bangladesh have the famous rickshaw. Each is unique in its own way, though they’re all variations on the same idea: a three-wheeler with a simple cab, a canopy, and either a 2-stroke engine or pedal power to carry passengers a few kilometres.
But this same simplicity and low cost have made the tuk-tuk unprofitable to modernise.
While car manufacturers turn out new models every year, the world’s three-wheelers are effectively vintage, even antique machines, at least in design.
The rickshaw was invented in 1860s Japan. Vietnam’s cyclo goes back to the 1930s.
But now the Asian Development Bank (ADB) hopes to haul these “paratransit” vehicles into the modern age.
A US-based company is preparing to launch a new prototype pedicab onto the streets of Nepal as part of a project to modernise urban transport in the developing world.
“We currently have vehicles made of tubular steel that are welded together and are extremely heavy, even before the people get on, or the goods get on,” says Bradley Schroeder, the project’s team leader from Catapult, a San Francisco-based company contracted by the ADB to design a new state-of-the-art rickshaw.
“When you look at the automotive industry and the scooter industry, they’ve advanced.
“They’ve applied aluminium, carbon fibre, all these concepts that have made vehicles lighter weight and more efficient.
“But for some reason, this hasn’t happened in the paratransit industry, I think because it generally applies to people at the bottom of the economic sphere instead of the top.
“Car manufacturers would rather go for the top-end consumer.”
As a result, there has never been a financial incentive for car manufacturers to take over production of trishaws like the tuk-tuk and rickshaw.
Instead, they are typically made by small-to-medium companies in countries like India or Bangladesh.
One family-run business might make the frame or seats. Another makes the canopy, and someone else does the painting.
The ADB has committed $US350,000 to design and produce 60 prototype pedicabs that will be introduced later this year onto the streets of Nepal — 30 in the capital Kathmandu and another 30 in Lumbini, the World Heritage town where Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, was said to be born.
The design is much stronger but lighter than a traditional rickshaw — and “sexy”.
“We’re basically taking paratransit vehicles and we’re trying to make them first-world, like an iPhone. It has to look sexy,” Mr Schroeder says.
“Asia is really about looks. It has to look and feel sexy.
“But from a design point of view, it has to be lightweight.
“The lighter weight we can make it the more efficient it is … which means the wallah — the guy who’s pulling the vehicle — can do more kilometres, have more passengers and make more money.
“Because they’re not the richest people in the world. They live at the fringe of society.”
Catapult’s design includes a pedal-only version like a traditional rickshaw but with gears.
There is also an “electrical-assist” model where the driver or cyclist still has to pedal to receive assistance from a battery.
The 60 prototypes which are about to be manufactured will be evaluated for six months, before a final design is chosen and put out to tender.
The design will be open-source.
“One of the project goals is to have someone ‘steal’ the design,” Mr Schroeder says.
“If Honda or Kia pick this up, that would be the benchmark of success, because they have design facilities, manufacturing facilities on a completely different scale than we have.”
The new pedicabs are likely to cost more than the current rickshaw.
But Mr Schroeder says the higher price will be offset by benefits such as smart technology, which is increasingly common in urban areas of even poor countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh.
Vehicles will have a chip or inbuilt technology that allows wealthier passengers to book a ride with a smartphone.
The technology will also allow passengers to rate drivers on their performance. A higher rating would mean higher revenue for individual drivers.
In Laos, for example, tuk-tuk drivers regularly offer male passengers drugs and women.
“You would have an app on your phone that would identify those drivers,” Mr Schroeder says.
“And drivers that don’t [offer drugs] would have a higher rating and get more business.
“So you would weed out the drivers that don’t provide a good service.”
Catapult has done extensive surveys with rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh and Nepal, helping to inform the design of the prototype models.
“In Bangladesh one of the things that came up is that we put a privacy panel in because, when we restructured the rickshaw, the driver’s butt was a similar height as the women passengers’ eyeline, which was culturally unacceptable,” Mr Schroeder says.
Overall though, feedback to the new pedicab design has been positive.
“We created a 3D model,” Mr Schroeder says.
“So you can imagine what a rickshaw driver thought when he got a 3D printed model of a new rickshaw. They were like ‘Wow, this is amazing’.”
If all goes to plan, hundreds of new, modern pedicabs will be operating in Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines by next year.