Thailand’s iconic, gas-guzzling tuk-tuks are being replaced by a greener, more energy efficient model, offering travellers a more environmentally friendly way of getting around what is one of the world’s worst countries when it comes to air pollution.
“The benefits are quite clear in terms of the environment”, says Krisada Kritayakirana, co-founder and CEO of start-up Urban Mobility Tech. “When you use traditional tuk-tuks, you can smell the gas and it sometimes could be unpleasant. With the electric tuk-tuks, basically you don’t have any noise and you don’t have any emission from tailpipes.”
In 2021, the levels of the pollutant PM2.5m in Thailand were four times higher than World Health Organization guidance. Inhalation of PM2.5 can cause respiratory problems and heart issues. In 2019, pollution was to blame for more than 31,000 deaths in the country.
“In big cities like Bangkok [or] Chiang Mai, the key source would be the incomplete combustion in diesel engine vehicles,” says Kannika Thampanishvong, senior research fellow on climate change policy and green growth at the Thailand Development Research Institute. As of 2019, there were almost 20,000 tuk-tuks in Thailand, typically powered by internal combustion engines.
The demand for electric tuk-tuks is growing, Kritayakirana says. In 2022, their number increased from 263 to 498, according to the Electric Vehicle Association of Thailand. The government has been encouraging EV uptake since 2015.
Fariha Essaji, a UK mother who used to live in Bangkok, used the electric tuk-tuks offered by UMT’s ride-hailing app Muvmi because they were cheaper than taxis and bigger than usual tuk-tuks so could accommodate a pushchair. But she says she appreciated the electric element given it made the vehicle less noisy.
Muvmi plans to increase its fleet of electric tuk-tuks from 350 to more than 1,000 in Bangkok, climbing to 5,000 nationally within five years. Vichian Suksoir, deputy executive director of the innovation department at Thailand’s National Innovation Agency (NIA), says many hotels are now purchasing electric tuk-tuks to transport guests.
But electric tuk-tuks alone won’t make much difference to air quality, says Dr Surat Bualert, an assistant professor focused on environmental science at Kasetsart University. “I think [electric] cars can improve air quality because the research and chemical analysis shows the major source of PM2.5 is transportation. Tuk-tuks cannot because the ratio of tuk-tuks is small compared to other vehicles.”
About 10m cars are registered in Thailand and the government aims to make 30% of its auto production zero-emission by 2030. Suksoir says NIA has earmarked 100m baht ($3m or £2.5m) for the development of EVs and related technology in 2023.
But EVs aren’t “the holy grail of making travel more sustainable”, says Ewan Cluckie, founder of Tripseed. They rely on grid power to charge, and in Thailand only 14.9% derives from renewable sources.
“Until we can transition the charging capabilities entirely to renewable energy, there is still some reliance on fossil fuels,” he says. And until issues of cost and range can be addressed, a wider transition to electric tuk-tuks “will be held back”.
Electric tuk-tuks can only travel short distances before needing to be charged, while the price to buy one is about 400,000 baht ($12,000), Cluckie says. The starting price for a traditional tuk-tuk is about 150,000 baht ($4,500).
“People aren’t going to get much money secondhand for their two-stroke tuk-tuks, and certainly not enough to go out and buy a brand new electric tuk-tuk”, Cluckie says. “On a grander scale across the city, I think it’s going to take a lot of time”.
But Kritayakirana says electric tuk-tuks will be cheaper in the long-run because petrol is much costlier than a battery. He believes EVs, including electric tuk-tuks, “are the future”.