There are the following things wrong with autorickshaws on India's streets:
- They are very polluting. The ones with the two stroke engines are the bigger culprit. Sure, they all run on CNG these days, but the 2-stroke engines require engine oil to be fed externally and the 2-stroke autorickshaw's engine literally burns this oil to keep running. Consequently, these rickshaws produce a tremendous amount of visible air pollution in the form of oil smoke. It is possible to minimize these emissions but that requires buying expensive oil. Unfortunately engine oils are available all the way from Rs. 40 to Rs. 140 per can, and I can see why the poor rickshaw drivers will be tempted to buy cheap low quality oil, which gives off even more fumes when burnt. The cheap oil also damages the engine but repairing a 2-stroke rickshaw engine is usually not very costly (compared to a 4-stroke engine) and I suspect rickshaw drivers have calculated that there is a cost advantage in letting their rickshaws run on cheap oil and in then repairing the engine as and when necessary. Rickshaw drivers also tend to change the factory setting for how much oil the engine takes in, since the perception is that the more oil the engine burns, the more smoothly it will run and the lesser the maintenance costs. In short, the 2-stroke autorickshaw the engine as and when necessary. the engine as and when necessary.
I would contend that in the suburbs of a city like Mumbai, most of the visible smoke pollution is coming from the tailpipes of two stroke rickshaws.
- Autorickshaws are very unsafe. They lack seat-belts, they have an almost open body structure and have practically no safety measures built into the body, frame or chassis. Add to this driving style combined with the inherently unsafe nature of the 3-wheel platform and its not hard to see why the autorickshaw is one of the most hazardous vehicle on our streets for both people in it and people around it.
- They create a lot of noise pollution. Indeed many of them sound like a rattling tin can. The worst offenders are the ones with two stroke engines. If you listen carefully at where the noise is coming from on a busy road or intesection, you'll find that a significant portion is contributed by autorickshaws. Once again, the cheaper the engine oil used, the more the noise.
- Autorickshaws are not very comfortable to ride in AND to drive. Autorickshaw drivers tell me that in spite of their open frame structure, the driver's half of the rickshaw receives hardly any wind, while receiving the maximum sunshine. Imagine having to drive this vehicle for 8 hours a day in 40-45 degree Celsius weather.
- And now here's the real kicker: You would think that a vehicle that has so many serious drawbacks would at least be quite cheap to buy. Well you would be very wrong !
A new 2-stroke engine rickshaw costs almost 1.7 Lakhs, while the 4-stroke version costs almost 2 Lakhs.
I should mention that autorickshaws do have plus points. Indeed, a platform with such serious drawbacks needs to have at something very big going for it, for it to proliferate so successfully. Well, what they have going for them is very simple:
Autorickshaws provide an extremely accessible and relatively cheap means of motorized transport to millions of people.
The accessibility comes from the sheer numbers of them on our streets. There is almost always one around when you need it.
The low cost of ridership comes from low maintenance costs (the autorickshaw is much more rugged than one might think), and the relatively low fuel consumption.
And then there is the distinction of transporting people while occupying one of the smallest amount of space on our congested streets.
Clearly, we need autorickshaws. The question is, is there a solution to the many ills they come with ?
There is, and the name of that solution is the TATA NANO.
Let me tell you why it makes sense to replace autorickshaws with Nanos:
- The Nano is supposed to cost 1 Lakh Rupees. The TATAs could be persuaded to manufacture a CNG or LNG version costing no more than 10 to 15 thousand more. The prospect of replacing each one of the lakhs of rickshaws on our streets with Nanos should make this persuasion very simple.
Indeed they can be persuaded to sell the CNG or LNG version for 1 Lakh or even less.
Compare this price with the price of a new autorickshaw.
City and state governments could facilitate the replacement of autorickshaws with Nanos by offering to buy back autorickshaws from their owners and sell them a Nano at a reduced price. They could further offer a zero interest loan for the remaining amount that the buyer will have to pay for the Nano. State and/or the Federal government would also need to add teeth to the 'Nano-fication' of autorickshaws by requiring that all autorickshaws - or at the 2-stroke versions - be exchanged for Nanos within a 5 year timeframe.
- A Nano is much less polluting than an autorickshaw.
- Replacing autorickshaws with Nanos will bring down pollution levels in our towns and cities in a way that almost no other government law or regulation would be able to accomplish .
- A Nano is a much safer vehicle than an autorickshaw. It has seat belts! The government would be able to require the wearing of seat belts by occupants of the 'nano-autorickshaw' similar to the law that exists for cars in Mumbai. Besides, the Nano will come with all the other safety features built into the body and the frame of the vehicle. Let me point out here that these safety features have long been considered standard in cars but we can only dream of enjoying them in the present day autorickshaw.
- A Nano will be much, much less noisy than an autorickshaw.
- A Nano will be roomier than an autorickshaw.
- A Nano will provide a much, much more comfortable ride than an autorickshaw for both the passengers AND the driver. This increased comfort would be especially useful for senior citizens and for people with back problems.
- And finally, the brilliant engineers at TATA can be coaxed into making the nano much more fuel efficient than an autorickshaw and at least as rugged as an autorickshaw. I feel this is possible because of the fundamentally superior engine, design and construction of the Nano.
Full Disclosure: I am not (and never was) a TATA employee or close relative, friend or business associate of any TATA employee that I know of.
My observations are based purely from what I know about the TATA Nano platform. If another company were to make a Nano like, but superior, vehicle available in India I would consider endorsing it as a replacement of the present day autorickshaw on India's streets.