Before the advent of call-taxis, the only efficient way of getting around efficiently in choked Indian traffic conditions was the ubiquitous auto rickshaw. It continues to be, for plenty few. Autos may have decreased in popularity after the advent of the radio cab revolution, but several of us still choose to stick with an auto over a taxi, because they're practically everywhere, unlike the latter's sometimes inconsistent availability. While more expensive than bus travel, ricks still offer an efficient and often sole means of 'last mile' transport.
So let's delve a little deeper into the world of the infamous three-wheeler, because there's a lot more to the rick than you may think.
Auto rickshaws in South East Asia are derived from the Daihatsu Midget three-wheeler or ‘mini-truck', going back all the way to 1957. As you can see, the basic shape hasn't changed much at all in more than five decades. The MP4 and MP5 models of the Midget, first introduced in 1960, are still in production in Thailand.
Photo credit: Wiki Commons/Mytho88
2. Ricknames and populace
Auto rickshaws have several variations and are called by several names across the world, including auto rickshaw, three wheeler, samosa, tuk tuk, baby taxi, auto, mototaxi, lapa, and tukxi, amongst others. This open-sided means of transport has found its way into markets across the globe like the Middle East, Africa, Asia , Europe, Central America, North America, and the Caribbean.
3. The numbers
The cost of an auto ranges between INR 1.3 to 1.8 lakh, so they're not as cheap as you might imagine. And that's just the start of the required investment. To run a rickshaw commercially, one must obtain a permit, which, because of the corrupt state of affairs in the country costs anything between INR 12,000 and 4.5 lakh (yes, you read right), when it should really be only around INR 375.
Photo credit: Flickr/Daniel Mennerich
And although auto drivers are said to make around INR 15,000 a month, it really works out to a daily wage of only around INR 250, after expenses and maintenance. Because these costs are so high, drivers are forced to join the ugly rat race and characteristically overcharge customers, refuse rides, and so on, in order to make ends meet. Also, as a result, most rickshaws are rented in India.
Photo credit: Flickr/bratboy76
Autos are still able to put up a fight against cabs in the country, simply by virtue of their numbers. Embarq tells us that Tier II cities see between 15,000 to 30,000 rickshaws plying on the roads, with numbers rising to 50,000 and more in Tier I cities.
Photo credit: Flickr/Sidddd
Bajaj Auto is the world's largest three-wheeler manufacturer, with the popular Bajaj RE Compact series dominating sales in India. The top spec CNG variant, the Compact 4S features a 200cc, single-cylinder engine that produces around 12 bhp of power and 13.2 Nm of torque. Incidentally, the front indicators are designed such that there's ‘less chance of breakage during sharp turns', according to the Bajaj Auto website. Sure, let's encourage bad driving.
The TVS King is another increasingly popular model, also with a 200cc engine, but with 7.38 bhp and 12.9 Nm of torque. Like the Bajaj Compact, the engine is mated to a four-speed transmission with a reverse gear. Options include an idol stand, wheel covers, FM radio and Feel Good mats. Both Bajaj and TVS three-wheelers provide mileage between 20-25 kpl with top speeds rated at around 65 kph.
How do Thailand's tuk tuks compare? They are ages ahead of their Indian counterparts in terms of performance, and a have a surprisingly great exhaust note. While electric tuk tuks are gaining in popularity, the petrol ones mainly feature Daihatsu engines, commonly with either 550 or 650cc displacements, mated to either 4-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Incidentally, the MMW Tuk Tuk is capable of a top speed of 110 kph and features anti-roll bars and disc brakes!
Photo credit: Wiki Commons/Ilya Plekhanov
It's quite easy to differentiate the kinds of auto rickshaws available in India. They are mainly of two types - petrol and CNG. Petrol ones are seen in either two-stroke or four-stroke varieties, usually with a trail of toxic blue smoke for the former. The cleaner autos running on CNG usually have the green and yellow paint scheme. However, this often varies with location, like Chennai's predominantly yellow sea of rickshaws.
6. Meter beater
While earlier mechanically-operated meters were easy to tamper with, newer digital meters offer far greater resistance to illegal messing around, and are more accurate with distance too. On average, fares in India work out to around INR 11 or 12 per kilometre on top of the minimum fare, which ranges around INR 25. Average trips in Thailand tuk tuks should cost between 40 and 100 baht (around INR 75 to 200). However, this depends on the intensity of your almost-certain fleecing as a tourist.
Photo credit: Flickr/Shubhojit Ghose
7. Trick rick
Literally every auto rickshaw will bear some mark(s) of customisation, but Colin Furze somehow managed to take modification to the level of the world's fastest rickshaw! Created as a promotion for the Far Cry 4 game title, this insane rick performs wheelies and drifts at will, and features a 600cc motorcycle engine that produces 100 horsepower! Other details include swivel-mounted side AK-47s, Uzis up front, and a flame thrower at the back...
8. Silver screenings
The auto has unsurprisingly found its way into Indian cinema, and has starred in a number of supporting roles, including Baasha starring Rajinikanth, Auto Raja with Shankar Nag, and Aye Auto with Mohanlal. In Bollywood, the auto rickshaw recently struck an emotional chord with viewers in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, starring Irfan Khan and Katrina Kaif.
9. Will our future have room for three wheels?
With safety regulations in the country getting stricter, and radio cabs expanding their network and reach by the day, the infamous auto rickshaw seem set for a steady decline. These three-wheelers will should really be replaced with safer four-wheeled options like the Bajaj RE 60, or even the Tata Magic Iris, that offer better weather protection and occupant safety. While auto rickshaws are certainly a lot more comfortable and less polluting than they were even five years ago, one gets the feeling that the days of open-sided three-wheeled transport may be numbered.
Photo credit: Flickr/Abhishek Shirali