July 14, 2014 / 5:44 AM / 6 years ago

Indian engineer prepares solar tuk-tuk for London odyssey

BANGALORE (Reuters) - Naveen Rabelli’s tuk-tuk broke down the first time he rolled it out of his garage. The electrical engineer didn’t lose heart: now, he plans to drive his customized three-wheeler all the way to London.

Raoul Kopacka, a 26-year old Austrian, sits along with Naveen Rabelli (unseen) from India inside a tuk tuk in the southern Indian city of Bangalore July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Rabelli will leave India next year on a 6,000-mile (9,600-km) odyssey through 10 countries to promote the idea of environmentally friendly travel. His tuk-tuk, or auto rickshaw, is powered entirely by electricity and solar power.

“What better way is there to travel? The tuk-tuk is an Indian icon and this vehicle does not pollute the air in any way,” Rabelli, 33, told Reuters as he rode alongside a lake in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

Since quitting his job with Reva, a unit of Indian car maker Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd that makes electric vehicles, Rabelli has spent two years tinkering with his second-hand tuk-tuk.

Equipped with a new motor, battery and gearbox, the bright red vehicle - named Tejas, a Sanskrit word meaning splendor or brilliance - now bears little resemblance to the sputtering, diesel-fueled three-wheelers ubiquitous on India’s roads.

A tonne when fully loaded, it weighs double a normal auto rickshaw. Its roof is made entirely from solar panels and cloth drapes protect its open sides from the elements.

Eight hours of battery charge will carry the tuk-tuk fewer than 50 miles, while five hours’ exposure to the sun will allow Tejas to push on for another 16 miles. That’s a lot of recharging stops on the road to London.

The project has already cost Rabelli his life savings of about $6,000. Before he leaves, he needs to raise more cash to reinforce the tuk-tuk’s rickety flooring and to buy a lithium-ion battery to replace the old lead-acid power source.

He says, however, that his vehicle is more economical than a typical auto rickshaw: the solar-electric variant can run 100 km on less than a dollar, while a tuk-tuk running on diesel would require about $4 to go the same distance.

Rabelli plans to ride his tuk-tuk from Bangalore to Mumbai, before putting it on a boat to Iran. Picking up the journey on the Persian Gulf, he will ride to Turkey before crossing into Bulgaria and heading across Europe to the French port of Calais.

For most of the journey, Rabelli and travel companion Raoul Kopacka will sleep on mattresses in the back of the tuk-tuk.

Rabelli said he chose Kopacka, who plans to film a documentary of the journey, ahead of other applicants because the 26-year-old Austrian is just short enough to lie down full-length in the back of the vehicle.

Editing by Robin Paxton

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