Bangkok Plugging Into Electric Taxis

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A BUSY Bangkok intersection is enough to make you want to forsake urban living forever. Motorcycles and mopeds cluster at the front, engines revving, their riders' mouths and noses swathed against the fumes. Behind them wait long rows of cars, buses, and trucks.

A furious mechanical buzzing rises as the light turns. The two-wheeled vehicles bolt into the empty road like giant, sputtering hornets moving in for the kill. They angle quickly into the crevices between lines of traffic ahead, playing the odds that some larger vehicle will not change lanes suddenly.

Aside from the frustration caused by the city's now legendary traffic jams, a level of congestion that has banished the notion of punctuality from the Thai capital, the worst features of Bangkok's vehicular overload are the noise and the exhaust.

All of which helps explain why Bangkok may become the proving ground for commercially viable electric vehicles -- cars, buses, and other transports that make almost no noise and emit no fumes.

A joint venture between a Thai maker of motorized, three-wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks and a high-tech California firm promises to put thousands of electric tuk-tuks on the roads of Thailand within the next few years. Proponents hope it will lead the way in electrifying transport nationwide.

Tuk-tuks look like a cross between a scooter and a golf cart and are used as low-cost taxis and delivery trucks. Similar vehicles ply the roads of dozens of mainly poor countries. Most are equipped with two-stroke engines that burn oil along with gasoline or liquid propane gas, a combination that produces exhaust loaded with particulates that harm air quality.

''Air pollution problems in Bangkok,'' writes Supat Wangwongwatana of the government's Pollution Control Department, ''are largely due to extreme traffic congestion coupled with only minimal controls on motor vehicle emissions.'' The worst offenders, he adds in a recent paper, are the engines that power most motorcycles and tuk-tuks.

But at the same time, Thailand's tuk-tuks represent the world's ''best potential commercial fleet'' for electrification, according to R. J. Gurley, a full-time Bangkok-based consultant to the United States Agency for International Development, which brokered the joint venture. First, tuk-tuks are generally not used for traveling long distances, so the limited range of electrically powered vehicles is not an issue. Second, the open-sided tuk-tuks are not air-conditioned, eliminating a major drain on an electric vehicle's power supply.

But best of all, the vast majority of Thailand's tuk-tuks are made by just one company, whose owner sees the wisdom in going electric. When Mr. Gurley came to see him in early 1993, ''the ideas matched,'' says Anan Supataranavich, chairman and managing director of Pholasith Tuk-Tuk Industry Co. Ltd., a Bangkok-based company with $7.2 million in annual sales.

The result was assistance from the Thai and US governments and a joint venture with Advanced Electric Car Technology, Inc. (AECT) of Van Nuys, Calif., which is providing much of the technology for the electric tuk-tuk and producing many of the parts for assembly in Thailand. In April, Supataranavich will open a new factory capable of producing 1,000 tuk-tuks a month; he says he hopes 400 of them will be electric in the first year.

A delivery-model electric tuk-tuk, at $6,000, will cost more than the same model equipped with an internal combustion engine (priced at $3,800), but maintenance costs will be cheaper. The vehicles can be charged with the electric current produced by Thai utilities, which now have excess capacity at night when demand is low. An electric model could run 24 hours a day, Gurley says, on two sets of the sophisticated lead-acid, 12-hour batteries that AECT developed for the tuk-tuk.

The joint venture has had problems and delays. ''It's been a bumpy road,'' says Gurley, who adds that the partners have conquered initial misunderstandings. ''We have an agreement, and we will stick to the agreement,'' insists Supataranavich.

Gurley sees the tuk-tuk as a beginning. To make the joint venture happen, participants convinced the Thai government to lower tariffs on electric vehicles and components.

At an international trade fair held near Bangkok in February, six US-based electric-vehicle component makers showed their wares, drawn by the government's favorable terms and Thailand's need for more environmentally friendly transportation.

Though affordability, electricity capacity, and air conditioning remain as hurdles, Gurley says four electric-vehicle joint ventures have either been signed or are under negotiation. He insists profit will be the engine of electrification in Thailand. ''The private sector is driving this,'' he says.

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