A Samurai to the fore | Sunday Observer

A Samurai to the fore

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week flagged off a tourist-friendly three-wheeler service for the first time in Sri Lanka at the Galle Face Green in Colombo. The project is being implemented by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) under the direction of the Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera in keeping with the Budget proposals presented last year.

The Budget 2018 proposed a tourism training and certification program for three-wheeler drivers who are above 21 years, in tourist areas. The SLTDA has developed the basic curriculum for a two-day training course and test, after which the driver receives a certification of completion, stickers and a photo identification card that must be displayed in the three wheeler, widely known as the tuk-tuk among tourists. An initial batch of 150 young three wheeler drivers received certification. Training and educating three-wheeler drivers will help increase their individual incomes, and the local economy of the community, while providing safer and more organised travel choices for tourists, according to the SLTDA. This complements many of the other laudable programmes of the SLTDA, such as, the classification of “tourist friendly eating places” in major cities.

Tuk tuk certification

A three wheeler ride in Sri Lanka is a major highlight for many tourists, who do not have this contraption in their countries. The certified tuk-tuk drivers can display the seal on their three-wheeler allowing local and foreign tourists to easily identify the trained drivers and obtain their services at a reasonable cost. This was a long felt need and along with the mandatory use of taxi meters, it will make the three wheelers more attractive to tourists and affluent locals, alike.

Many ‘horror stories’ about three wheeler drivers ripping off tourists have been published in guide books, blogs and newspaper articles. Some three wheeler drivers are also known to be rude to foreign tourists who try to negotiate fares. There have also been a few rare cases of three wheeler drivers attempting to molest female tourists. All this should end with the proper training of three wheeler drivers in Colombo and other major cities on how to deal with foreign passengers. We hope 150 is just the start – at least 5,000 drivers should be trained for the tourist friendly three wheeler service. Moreover, all drivers, not just three wheeler drivers, working for the popular ride hailing services must be given similar training, as many tourists use these apps.

This writer is of the view that three wheelers in their present form and structure should eventually be phased out by around 2030, but with more than one million three wheelers in circulation this may not be possible for at least 20 more years. The three wheeler is a fundamentally unsafe vehicle that is responsible for the majority of accidents in this country. Add the generally lawless driving patterns of most three wheeler drivers to the mix and we have the perfect recipe for accidents waiting to happen.

Alternatives

But the good news is that there are alternatives to the conventional three wheeler out there. The first one is the Quadricycle, which is almost the size of a three wheeler, but with four wheels instead of three, a steering wheel instead of a handle and four proper doors that open and close with a reassuring thud. That alone gives it more stability and safety. Around 500 quadricycles have already been registered after the vehicle was recently recognised, under a separate registration category (GAA Series) by the Department of Motor Traffic.

Quadricycle

It will indeed take many more years for the quadricycle to replace the humble three wheeler, but with only a Rs.200,000 price difference between the two, buying a three wheeler no longer makes any sense. There is no air-conditioning (for that, one has to move up to the Nano/Alto class of real cars), airbags or some other creature comforts in quadricycles, but these will primarily be used for “last-mile” trips where such luxuries are not needed. Quadricycles are likely to get electric power plants soon, making pollution a thing of the past. These vehicles are already quite popular in Europe.

But wait, three wheelers themselves are getting electric power. And the first off the gate could possibly be a local one or rather a collaboration between Sri Lanka and Japan (which does not have any three wheelers on its roads). Enter the Samurai three wheeler (after the legendary warriors of Japan), built with Japanese technology and currently being tested in Sri Lanka, which could be launched in 2020. The vehicle, powered by two batteries, has a maximum speed of 60 kmph with a more powerful thrust than the normal fuel-powered (petrol or diesel) three-wheeler. At normal speeds, its batteries could last for about 80 Km before needing a six-hour full recharge. This range is more than adequate for the “last-mile” trips (such as from the train station to one’s home) that three wheelers are generally used for.

Designed by T-Plan Inc., a Japanese engineering consulting company that provides technical support for automobile giants such as, Toyota, Daihatsu and Subaru, the Samurai is slightly larger than a conventional tuk-tuk and is designed differently with two wheels in front and one wheel at the rear. It is currently being tested at the University of Ruhuna and the University of Peradeniya. This design adds more stability to the chassis and also gives more room for passengers.

Benefits

Perhaps, the biggest benefit of having two wheels in front is that it prevents drivers from making haphazard u-turns and other manoeuvres. Three wheeler drivers are notorious for breaking the ‘lock” in the front wheel that prevents 360 degree turns.

The changed front shape also adds more space for the driver’s legs, which should reduce leg injuries in frontal crashes. Another literally ‘unseen’ benefit is that electric three wheelers (or for that matter, all fully electric vehicles) are emission free, which would help the environment in no small measure. We expect more players, including the established three wheeler manufacturers, to enter this space in the near future but the Sri Lanka-Japan ‘Samurai’ should be able to hold its ground against these rivals.

Sri Lanka has set a target year (2040) for phasing out new registrations of fossil fuel powered vehicles, though it is unclear whether this includes hybrid vehicles as well. However, electric and hydrogen powered vehicles will have entered the mainstream market by this time and perhaps, consumers will only have these vehicles to choose from. Already, most major manufacturers have pledged to go completely electric from around 2025 – in this light, 2040 looks a very reasonable and viable target. The authorities should encourage more projects like the Samurai to help realise this electric goal.

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