The Auto-rickshaw and its role as a sustainable transport system
It was around the 19th century when the rickshaw was introduced in India. Inspired by the Japanese and Chinese nations, the rickshaw became popular as a cheap means of transport and goods carrier. Since becoming a rickshaw driver was the first job easily available for peasants migrating to new cities, it quickly became a key form of livelihood. Through the years, the human-aided rickshaw was slowly eradicated as a form of transport and with the rise of automobile industrialization, we saw new forms of motorized commercial transport systems being introduced. The auto-rickshaw was one of them.
From auto in India, tuk-tuk in Indonesia, tempo in Thailand, bajaji in Madagascar, to Tukxi in Italy — the three-wheeler auto rickshaw is known by many names (1). The birth of the auto came through the development of the Piaggio Ape that was manufactured by Piaggio in Italy in the 1950’s as an affordable utility vehicle (2). While the Ape was received as a goods carrier in European countries, it was transformed into a public transport vehicle in Asian nations. In the 1960’s Bajaj, an Indian automobile corporation won the license to produce and manufacture the Ape into an Intermediate Public Transport or IPT in India (3). Over the years, Bajaj became the world’s leading producer of the auto. Slowly, the auto not only became an essential part of India’s urban transport system but also as part of our social culture. In this paper, I would like to delve deeper into the form of the auto-rickshaw, and how it can become an important part of creating sustainable transportation systems in India.
Design of the Auto
The first version of the auto produced in India was a modified form of the Ape. The body was inspired by the “bee” — giving form to curved surfaces, compact shape, and agility to move between small spaces . Envisioned to be an upgrade of the two-wheeled Vespa but smaller than the four-wheeled cars, the auto was a three-wheeled motorized vehicle. The auto’s steering control was made in the form of the handlebar, with the aim of it being easy to learn and maneuver. The engine was placed under the driver’s seat in a metal covering, giving the vehicle some central weight and making it less likely to topple over. Being around eight feet in length and 4 feet in width, it had limited baggage space, a separated cabin for the driver and no provisions of doors.
The auto could seat four people including the driver in the front. Keeping in mind that the vehicle was to be commercial and affordable, the materials sourced for its production were low in price and easy to obtain. It had a sheet metal body frame with a canvas roof and canvas curtains which could be rolled down as doors. Using fabric seats for the driver and passenger, it was not designed to be comfortable, but to be efficient. The auto weighed less than 300 kgs and could drive at the speed of 30 km per hour. Due to it being so light and compact, the auto had the ability to drive on small roads and through India’s congested traffic. As the auto was a legalized public transport vehicle by the government of India, its colors were standardized to black and yellow — the national colors for the taxi. The overall design of the auto was based more on practicality, giving less importance to sustainability, comfort and passenger safety. Over time, the form of the auto and its function have raised many criticisms, some warranted and some not.
Criticisms of the Auto and its future
The auto rickshaw faces many criticisms. The original auto was originally designed with a two-stroke engine. “Two-stroke engines produce a lot of pollution because the fuel-air mixture in them gets contaminated with the engine’s lubricating oils. Simultaneously the combustion chamber draws in the contaminated mixture as exhaust gasses are expelled through an exhaust port. Some of the fuel and oil gets mixed with the exhaust.”(4) This problem can be solved by replacing existing two-stroke engine autos with a four stroke engine. A four stroke engine has an oiling system that is kept separate from the combustion chamber, ensuring no dirty mixture of fuels that can be released as pollution. It also has more torque and lasts longer than a two stroke engine. Converting to four-stroke engines opens up the option of making autos run on compressed natural gas (CNG), making it more environment-friendly (5).
Many of India’s autos have already been converted to run on CNG and they are distinguishable by their authorized paint color — green and yellow. Another argument was that the auto is deemed unsafe due to the ‘lightness’ of its form which makes it susceptible to topple over, the absence of seat belts for passenger and driver safety and the fact that it doesn’t have any doors, leading people to fear that they will be thrown out the vehicle in the case of a collision. Again these issues can be sorted by developing the auto to have seatbelts, airbags, and electronic stability controls. Cushioning or padding of the vehicle is possible in the interiors as well as better external bumpers to ensure that the vehicle does not get toppled over.
Autos are often targeted as the cause of congestion in the city. Due to lack of infrastructure such as dedicated auto stands, they are parked illegally and tend to pick up passengers at random spots, halting traffic flow. With no dedicated service lanes, they zip between private cars and buses, increasing the risk of road accidents. If the government was to invest in the auto to make it more sustainable, the auto can be seen as an efficient and affordable feeder transport vehicle. A feeder vehicle is something that provides first and last mile connectivity as well as access to bigger public transport systems such as railways and buses.
The availability of the rickshaw at any time of the day and night, their ability to have door-to-door service and the affordability of their services, makes the auto an important object of Mumbai’s system. It is the one vehicle that we can advertise to replace the use of the increasing private car on the roads. The auto has great potential of being further developed to be a sustainable and efficient IPT. By improving the infrastructure available to the auto, it can be an essential part of promoting sustainable transport systems in urban settings.
(1) Pres Associates, “Tuk-tuk world record set by British Teachers”, The Guardian.
(2) Biancardino Luca, “The Piaggio Ape — Vintage Italian Motor Design” Gazomag.
(3) Vira Dhanil, ”The History of Bajaj Auto” Motor Beam.
(4) Kushner David, “Two Strokes and You’re Out” Discover Magazine.
(5) Whelan Carolyn, “Different Strokes: New Lower-Pollution Auto Rickshaw Engines Could Save Lives and Curb Climate Change” Scientific American.