BANGKOK: No frills, no fumes

Thai tuk-tuks: Cheap, dirty and dangerous. An entrepreneur cleans up their image

On a warm afternoon in Bangkok, eight small, open taxis await passers-by outside the Grand Palace, one of the city's main sights.

Two drivers sleep in the back seat of their vehicles. Four others play a form of chess. One looks up as another of these motorized tricycles putters past, driven by a windswept local woman and laden with 10 bales of cloth. As it rounds a corner, the vehicle leans alarmingly. Somehow, nothing falls off.

As a visitor quickly learns, these distinctive vehicles are tuk-tuks, a symbol of tourism in Thailand. Powered by tiny motors, these three-wheeled jitneys are little more than motorcycles with an extra wheel. They carry citizens and the more adventurous tourists all over the city, with considerable noise and clouds of evil-smelling smoke.

These vehicles are so closely associated with Bangkok's chronic air pollution that it seems odd to imagine an electric tuk-tuk. But that is exactly what Sukwasa Supataravanich has in mind. She is managing director of Pholasith, a Bangkok company that plans to introduce an electric tuk-tuk that is supposed to be cheaper to operate than conventional jitneys.

With a top speed of 60 kilometers per hour, the electric tuk-tuks can keep up with conventional tuk-tuks - although only a foolish tourist would want to go that fast. And with a daily range of 120 to 200 kilometers, the vehicles should prove as adequate as taxis.

The company expects to produce the vehicle this year, after getting government approval. Pholasith, she says, already produces 90 percent of Thailand's tuk-tuks. If so, that would suggest she has the marketing power to make this vehicle a success.

Humble start

Tuk-tuks were imported from Japan shortly after World War II. They got their name from the distinctive noise of their simple, single-cylinder engines. As a result of legislation, the worst of them were banned in the 1980s. Now, 90 percent run on liquid propane rather than diesel fuel.

During an interview with Supataravanich, my interpreter recalls that he once rode in a tuk-tuk that failed to complete a turn. It rolled over, then rolled again until it was upright.

'I was holding onto the roof anyway, so I was not injured,' my interpreter says.

Supataravanich asks my interpreter about his accident. After sharp questioning, he admits the incident occurred 40 years ago.

Supataravanich insists tuk-tuks are not dangerous. There have been changes, she says, becoming surprisingly angry about what she calls the inaccurate reputation of tuk-tuks. 'Formerly there was only one model and it was unsafe, but we changed all that with a more stable design. It's more than 20 years since they rolled over.'

Tuk-Tuk market

Tuk-tuks come in many forms. Pholasith's entry-level model is the standard taxi version, which sells for $1,999. The main market for tuk-tuks is among the taxi operators in Bangkok. Few tuk-tuk drivers can afford to buy their own vehicle; most are rented from entrepreneurs who buy fleets of them. Pholasith does sell a sportier model priced at $2,309. It is marketed exclusively as a private vehicle for export only.

About 20 percent of Pholasith's sales are exports to 60 countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Overseas buyers use them as golf carts or as 'amusing corporate vehicles,' Supataravanich says.

In Thailand, it is difficult to get a license to drive a tuk-tuk for any other use than a taxi. Supataravanich reckons there would be many more if licenses were easier to obtain. She blames the previous Thai government for this. Supataravanich says the government ignored tuk-tuk owners because they could not afford to pay as large a bribe as owners of expensive imports such as Mercedes-Benz or BMW did.

Pholasith started out by supplying parts to tuk-tuk manufacturers. In 1985, the company began building vehicles - and improving their performance. First, Pholasith substituted a Daihatsu 550cc engine for the filthy 350cc two-stroke powertrains used in tuk-tuks.

The company also built a larger factory in 1996, increasing capacity to 10,000 units. But the company suffered bad timing. One year later, vehicle sales plunged after Thailand entered a sharp recession. The company has only 90 employees, down from 300 before the crash. Supataravanich predicts she will sell 3,000 units this year.

Supataravanich will not disclose her company's revenues. But sales are beginning to rise, she says, now that she has returned to manage the company full time. Earlier, she had given up most of her daily duties to look after her family.

Silent haven

Lately, Supataravanich has spent much of her time preparing for the debut of her electric tuk-tuk. Although the electric version is slightly more expensive, Supataravanich says it is cheaper to maintain over a five-year period. That, in turn, means the fleet owners could rent these vehicles to drivers at a slightly lower rate.

With fleets of electric tuk-tuks, Bangkok's streets soon would become a silent, sweet-smelling haven.

Well, that is the theory. Pholasith already sells electric golf carts to prove they work. Believe it or not, the company is designing a solar-powered tuk-tuk.

But that is a project for another day. For the moment, the company is trying to get a government license to use electric tuk-tuks on public roads.

Will the vehicle sell? As always, Supataravanich is confident: 'If I market it, buyers will like it.'

E-mail writer John Boley at Journo@Boley.com

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