unbound solar tuk tuk

A team of sustainability-minded engineers is set to fire up the conversation around sustainable transport through a globe-trotting solar-powered tuk tuk adventure.

The world tour of the customised and road-approved electric tuk tuk will kick off with an Australian adventure from Melbourne to Cairns starting next month (November).

Founder and chief executive of social impact education provider Unbound, Julian O’Shea, came up with the idea following a trip to Bangkok for a project.

He told The Fifth Estate that seeing tuk tuks everywhere being used to transport people and goods made him think, why not use them in Australia?

The SolarTuk project is being supported by RMIT University, which has provided the skills of a team of final year engineering students in addition to technology and some funding.

The vehicle was officially unveiled at RMIT University’s EnGenius event this month.

The project also has a small grant from Australia-ASEAN Council, as it will deliver sustainability outreach activities during a South East Asia trip planned for early next year. The Australian Geographic Society is a partner in the initiative.

O’Shea says that research conducted by Unbound for a thesis showed that the use of tuk tuks in SE Asia is contributing to the region’s pollution and emissions issues, as the majority of the millions of tuk tuks in use are powered by inefficient, fossil-fuel burning two-stroke engines.

In addition to the CO2 these engines produce, the research identified that the majority do not have the appropriate catalytic converter installed to convert the carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide produced by gas or petroleum combustion into less harmful compounds.

Two-stroke engines also produce a higher level of dangerous pollution that four-stroke engines – with one two-stroke tuk tuk producing an amount of pollution equivalent to between 30 and 50 four-stroke engines.

The research concluded that shifting to electric power, and particularly electric power from renewable sources, would be beneficial both in terms of reducing environmental impacts and potentially stimulating the growth of renewable energy generation in SE Asian nations.

It’s something Australia could also benefit from, and one of the project team’s hopes is that seeing the solar tuk tuk in action will reduce concerns around range and capability for electric vehicles.

After all, if a solar tuk tuk with a top speed of around 50 kilometres an hour and a range of between 250km to 300km per full battery charge can travel the length of the east coast, then drivers routinely travelling shorter distances should take heart.

O’Shea says the tuk tuk, sourced through Australian reseller Bongo, has been designed to meet European Union safety standards, as the Bangkok factory it was made in also supplies buyers in the EU.

The vehicle had a “few hoops” to jump through to meet Victorian government road safety standards and become registered, and these were achieved. It is legally drivable on roads in all states, and the driver only needs a regular drivers license.

The solar panels installed on the roof, sides and rear of the tuk tuk are a lightweight, flexible panel type commonly used for RVs and caravans, O’Shea says. The panels sit flat when the vehicle is driving, and when it is stationary the side and rear panels can fold up to maximise solar capture.

The team had some specialist advice around the solar and storage system from project advisor Dr Matt Edwards, a UNSW ARENA Postdoctoral Fellow and manager of UNSW’s Photovoltaics Technology Transfer Team.

The batteries in the vehicle are from a Tesla S and O’Shea explains that in the US, when a Tesla is involved in an incident that takes the car off the road permanently, the batteries are often still perfectly fine. So, the team sourced this kind of second-hand battery.

Where a charge top-up is needed during the journey. O’Shea says the plan is to source it from community buildings with solar including Indigenous communities, schools and others, or individuals with off-grid solar-powered properties. This will not only ensure the project achieves 100 per cent solar powered travel, and also be part of the networking and outreach that is fundamental to the exercise.

“It will nudge us to meet the amazing sustainability champions that are installing solar,” O’Shea says.

The team will also be happy to have politicians “jump onboard” along the way for the photo opportunity and general awareness raising, as well as engage with schools, community groups and others.

“It’s a great sustainability outreach mobile. Tuk tuks are just delightful – when you are driving around, everyone turns to look.”

The planned route from Melbourne to Cairns includes all the capital cities along the route, as well as regional towns such as Yackandandah, Cooma, Bendigo, Nowra, Coffs harbour, Gympie and Bundaberg.

There are quite a few steep hills and the odd mountain involved, which O’Shea says he is “nervous but quietly confident” about.

The journey is also likely to be an enjoyable one.

“It is nice to be involved with a project where fun is one of the metrics of success,” O’Shea says.

“The SolarTuk project is an ambitious, and slightly crazy, project, but one that we hope will reach thousands of Australians, and encourage a more sustainable future”.

  • Follow the SolarTuk journey or get in touch with the team to share a cuppa and a chat.

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  1. Having just returned from Nepal and India, I am once again in love with the tuk tuk. However, in this trip I was amazed to see so few vehicles – Tuk tuk and motorbikes/scooters – leaving a blue haze behind them, it seems that the move to 4 strokes away from 2 strokes must have happened some time back. Also there were many tuk tuk that were clearly electric. The number of passengers squeezed into these diminutive vehicles has to be seen to be believed and yet they still perform remarkably well in the cities.