Riding Batteries

As we gear up for electric cars, a smaller revolution has gone relatively unnoticed.

Riding Batteries

As we gear up for electric cars, a smaller revolution has gone relatively unnoticed.

Last July, India announced it would end the sale of petrol cars by 2030, and move towards electric ones instead. Norway, France and the United Kingdom have made similar promises. Even China is working on incentives to have at least 11% of their cars electric by the end of the decade.

As countries around the world gear up for electric cars, a smaller revolution has gone relatively unnoticed.


Nobody knows for sure who invented the rickshaw. One story is that an American missionary in Japan created it to transport his wife who had trouble walking. Other stories from the USA credit an American blacksmith, minister or carriage-maker. Maybe it was just invented multiple times.

The truth is that, in 1870, the Tokyo government gave rickshaw-building permission to three men: Izumi Yosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro and Takayama Kosuke. They had invented their vehicle a couple of years before, inspired by the horse-drawn carriages that had recently come out onto the streets.

Standing between their new invention and pulling it forward would be not horses, but humans.

That’s where rickshaws get their original name, jinrikisha. It comes from the Japanese words jin (human), riki (power or force), and sha (vehicle).

Even though it was a case of humans pulling humans, the jinrikisha became very popular. People would have to get a license, including a seal from one of its three inventors, before operating their vehicles. That’s how we know that, by 1872, there were about forty thousand jinrikisha operating in Tokyo. They soon spread to become Japan’s main form of public transportation.

The jinrikisha became popular in China as well. It was an easy way for the poor to make money. And for the wealthy people, it was a cheap alternative to walking.

In India, the rickshaws were used a bit more sensibly. They were first brought in by Chinese traders, to carry their goods and wares around. That didn’t last long, however, as the Chinese soon sought permission to use rickshaws for passengers too. Pulling rickshaws was often the first job for people migrating from the village to the city.

Nowadays, many people don’t like the idea of taking a hand-pulled rickshaw. They find it ‘degrading to a human’ to have to carry other humans along, especially when those other people are perfectly capable of walking themselves.

But nowadays, if you hear the word ‘rickshaw’, it’ll more commonly refer to the ‘cycle-rickshaw’. These pedal-powered vehicles work in a similar way to hand-pulled ones — but riding them actually makes sense. Taking upto two passengers, cycle-rickshaws car travel faster than a normal walk. And they’re much less tiring for the driver to operate.

Some people blame cycle-rickshaws for slowing down traffic, but, having no engine, they are also seen as an eco-friendly way of getting around.

The term ‘autorickshaw’ was first coined by N.K. Firodia, whose company marketed it as an improvement over the human-powered ones used until then. The first autorickshaws were rolled out in 1957 by the Bachchraj Trading Corporation — which was later renamed to the now-famous Bajaj Auto.

The first autorickshaws were powered by petrol engines, and had the same yellow-and black design they use to this day. Fully equipped with seats, horns, and a rear-view mirror, they didn’t look anything like the other rickshaws — they were so different, in fact, that many people today refer to them as just ‘auto’.

Autos still look much the same, but, internally, they have gone through many changes. You just can’t see them.

The old engine, under the driver’s seat, has now been replaced with a more efficient one at the back of the vehicle. The balloon-like ‘pom-pom’ horns have been replaced by the electronic ‘beeeep’. More drastically, the newest line of autos run on compressed natural gas — shortened to ‘CNG’ — making them less polluting that petrol-powered ones.

But autos are relatively expensive to buy and maintain — which is why cycle-rickshaws are still common in many places. Until now, that is.

The latest entrant into the game is the battery-powered electric-rickshaw, or ‘e-rickshaw’ for short. Although that is by no means their only name. Depending on where you go, they are variously known as ‘tuk-tuk’, ‘tom-tom’, or simply ‘battery’.

The simplest e-rickshaws are just ordinary cycle-rickshaws with a battery and engine attached under the seat. More common nowadays are what look like modified motorbikes, enclosed in a fancy case of fibreglass or aluminium. These hi-tech versions have four seats at the back — two facing forward, two facing behind — and one more in front for the driver.

The vehicles cost about a lakh, and can run more than a hundred kilometres on a single charge. Best of all, you don’t need to buy fuel: since they’re battery powered, all you have to do is plug them in!

Due to a legal loophole, e-rickshaws were not counted as ‘motor vehicles’. That meant they didn’t have to be registered, and didn’t have to get a number-plate or anything. That’s partly why they became popular — but it has also caused problems when they went out of control.

Tripura was the first state in India to legalise e-rickshaws. They made new by-laws for regulating them, and set up systems for drivers to register before running their vehicles. Unlike the rickshaws of Tokyo, e-rickshaws licenses didn’t need a personal seal from one of the inventors.

The importance of having registrations was soon highlighted in Delhi, where e-rickshaws began to clog up the roads and also cause multiple accidents. Because there was no way to keep track of them, the city had to resort to a blanket ban: No e-rickshaws allowed, period.

All that was a while ago, however. Before long, the Central Government stepped in, and passed a bill to regulate e-rickshaws all over the country. Now, drivers must have driving-licenses, and can carry upto four passengers and 40kg of luggage on a single rickshaw.

The government is also running schemes where people can get insurance, and take loans to buy the e-rickshaw, paying back the money as they earn it. Meanwhile, solar-powered energy banks have been set up to change the vehicles in an eco-friendly way.

Last year, cab aggregator Ola added e-rickshaws as an option in their mobile app, deploying them across Delhi and other parts of the National Capital Region.

Ever since the electric-car blueprint, the government and manufacturers are working to get them out on the roads. It’ll be a while yet before electric cars become commonplace.

But meanwhile, the rickshaws are already there.


Ready for more? This week at Snipette, we’re run a whole series on electric cars. We’ve covered what other countries are doing to promote them, gone into a bit of history, and there’s more to come. So, be sure to check back again tomorrow!

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