Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Tuk Tuks Powered by the Sun

By Stephen Luntz

An Australian inventor has produced a series of solar-powered vehicles that he hopes will take the developing world by storm. The first models are already for sale, and mass production will begin in March 2014.

To power a standard electric car on solar energy requires far more roof space than is available on the vehicle alone. However, because the tuk tuks that dominate many cities in Asia and Africa are lighter and have maximum speeds of 50 km/h they use so much less energy that they can draw all their power from their roof.

Jacob Maimon came up with the idea of a solar tuk tuk when visiting a village in southern Vietnam. “When I got out I saw the driver putting only a small amount of petrol into the tank,” says Maimon. “I asked him why he didn’t fill it up and he said the cost of fuel was prohibitive and he could barely cover his daily expenses with the amount of work he picked up.”

Maimon’s company, Star 8, is building a factory in Cambodia for 650 cc, 800 cc and 1000 cc tuk tuks, but since the electric engine is silent they are just being called “tuks”. The roof produces 500 W when travelling in full sunlight, but for some versions a second roof can slide out to add another 300 W when the vehicle is stationary for any length of time.

Costs will vary between $2000 and $3000, making the starting price competitive with petrol-powered tuk tuks, which Maimon says range from $2000–$4000. “Most drivers spend $10–15 on petrol a day, so they can save the price in a year,” Maimon says.

“Many of the drivers don’t have electricity in the home,” says Maimon, who hopes the solar tuks will enable lighting and cooking using excess power produced on sunny days. Maimon notes that many Australian houses have 1.5 kW solar systems and the families using the vehicles would have much lower electricity demand.

The first production versions will not have facilities for riders to pedal in order to save the vehicle’s batteries, but Maimon says: “We are working on three different designs, manufacturers are so keen on it.”

Globally millions of tuk tuks are in use, but their engines are so inefficient they are a major source of local air pollution and greenhouse gases.