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Bye-bye to the tuk-tuk? Three-wheelers lose luster in Asia

Bajaj Auto's three-wheeled vehicles zip around the streets of Sri Lanka.

MUMBAI/JAKARTA -- Three-wheeled vehicle production appears to be on the wane in Asia as four-wheeled cars and motorcycles become the rides of choice, and because of environmental concerns.

     India's Crisil Research projects that sales of cargo-carrying three-wheelers will decrease in the long run due to the rise in use of four-wheeled vehicles. But it says that sales of cargo-carrying three-wheelers in India will continue to slightly increase until fiscal 2018, and that sales of passenger-carrying three-wheelers will have an average annual growth of 8-10%.

     In a business district in the north of Mumbai, three-wheeled taxis known as auto-rickshaws are everywhere. "Sometimes I have as many as 40 customers a day," said an auto-rickshaw driver who goes by the name Vijendra.

     Auto-rickshaw is a common form of transportation in India because of the lower fares and high mobility. Fares start at 17 rupees (30 cents), 4 rupees cheaper than that of four-wheeled taxis. Also, the vehicle width of a standard three-wheeler by India's Bajaj Auto is 1.3 meters, whereas that of a standard four-wheeler is around 1.8 meters. The auto-rickshaw is simply more maneuverable through Mumbai's narrow alleys and jammed traffic.

     There are an estimated 3 million cargo and passenger three-wheelers in India. But three-wheeler production has leveled off over the past few years. Total annual domestic three-wheeler production, including those manufactured by Bajaj Auto and Italy's Piaggio, is at about 800,000 units.

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Growing environmental awareness is partly responsible for this decrease in production. A three-wheeled vehicle is priced at only about 150,000 rupees in India, half the price of a low-end, small, four-wheeled car. But there are no proper measures to address emissions and noise for three-wheelers, and the sight of older three-wheelers belching black exhaust and being very loud on Indian roads has helped give three-wheelers a reputation for being major contributors to pollution in many Asian countries.

     In the National Capital Territory of Delhi, regulations have been tightened, sending to the roads only cleaner models powered by compressed natural gas, not gasoline. Some parts of Mumbai are also banning three-wheelers.

     Such is the case with other Southeast Asian nations that are importing three-wheelers from India.

     In Indonesia, three-wheelers started to spread around 1975 and currently about 20,000 of them are believed to be on the roads of Jakarta and other major cities. But the country has been tightening environmental regulations recently, allowing only three-wheelers fueled by compressed natural gas for new registration since 2006.

     In Bangkok, three-wheelers are called "tuk-tuks" and have become an iconic image of the city. But new registrations for tuk-tuks have been terminated and their numbers on the roads are decreasing.

     To address these environmental concerns, Bajaj Auto has developed technologies to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions of existing vehicles by 20-50%, taking advantage of German autoparts maker Bosch's technologies. Bajaj Auto is also focusing on research on electric vehicles.

Nikkei staff writer Minoru Satake in Manila contributed to this story.  

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