Power of the ‘tuk-tuk’

Naveen Rabelli’s solar- and electric-powered, retrofitted autorickshaw makes it to London

The ‘tuk-tuk’ at Bulgaria’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia. Photo: Courtesy Naveen Rabelli
The ‘tuk-tuk’ at Bulgaria’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia. Photo: Courtesy Naveen Rabelli

When Tejas finally reached London, its destination, 10 days ago after a 14,200km drive over seven months, its owner-driver Naveen Rabelli could finally raise a toast to the power of the tuk-tuk.

The humble autorickshaw had been remodelled and retrofitted by Rabelli, an automobile engineer from Hyderabad, converting it from a fuel-driven three-wheeler, christened Tejas, into a solar-powered and electric-charged unit. The 35-year-old hopes his message of a pollution-free, sustainable lifestyle will be driven home too, “especially among younger generations”.

“Project Tejas,” he says on email from London, “is about building, travelling and inspiring. If a common man like me can achieve something like this, most can do it too.”

It was he who came up with the idea of driving the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, “among the most polluting vehicles in India”, across a dozen-odd countries from Iran, “If I can make an example with a prototype of the tuk-tuk, whole mindsets might change,” he says. He chose Iran for logistical reasons.

The idea of modifying it came to him while he was stuck in a traffic jam in Hyderabad. He quickly set to work, buying a tuk-tuk for $1,000 (around Rs67,020); “eventually, the two prototypes would cost me an additional $12,000,” he says. His master’s in electronic engineering from Australia’s RMIT University and his previous work experience at Reva—the pioneering electric vehicle brand—came in handy.

Tejas made its way through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and France. And when it made an appearance at the Low Carbon Vehicle Event 2016 held in Millbrook, UK, from 14-15 September, heads turned. “Solar- and electric-powered vehicles are definitely the future,” says Rabelli.

A journey of such scale and proportions couldn’t have come without its share of “experiences”. In France, his passport and wallet got stolen. But the good, life-affirming experiences easily outnumbered the bad ones—becoming friends with people he met on the way, getting inspired by some, inspiring others, especially when they were told of Tejas’ fuel-free odyssey, Iranian girls taking selfies with the vehicle, and getting introduced to a man who runs a school in Iran for Afghan refugees and provides free lodging to travellers. “He thinks hospitality is a human right,” says Rabelli. “It is the love and affection of people I met on the way that is my biggest takeaway from the trip.”

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