Emerging Asia’s jeepney buses and tuk-tuks go green

Jeepneys are known for their flamboyant colors and black exhaust, a major source of pollution in Philippine cities.

The face of transportation in Asia’s biggest cities — jeepneys, tuk-tuks and auto rickshaws — are getting a makeover as the region electrifies these unique vehicles in a push to reduce pollution.

The jeepney buses of Manila are known for their flamboyancy — and their age. Even though one was waiting for passengers, a 27-year-old worker headed home instead boarded a minibus traveling on the same route that charges 11 pesos (21 cents), 1 peso more than a traditional jeepney. “They are so comfortable with air conditioning — I don’t want to take the old ones anymore,” she said.

Jeepneys are refurbished American military vehicles left over from World War II that have become a staple of Filipino public transportation. They provide cheap rides while allowing passengers to hop on and off anywhere.

In their current form, the vehicles are often more than 15 years old with aging engines that spew black smoke.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte singled out the vehicles in a 2017 speech. “You are poisoning the people,” Duterte said then in comments directed at jeepney operators. His government plans to introduce Euro 4 emissions standards that will force the country’s roughly 200,000 jeepneys to upgrade to new vehicles by 2022.

Two Japanese companies have already developed compliant models. Hino Motors has received 430 orders and can make two vehicles per day at a local bus factory. “I want to quintuple production by constructing a specialized building at the plant,” said Mitsuharu Tabata, president of Hino Motors Philippines.

Isuzu Motors has received about 150 orders and will begin local production of transmissions for the vehicles soon.

Aiming to cultivate the local auto industry, the Philippine government is introducing tax incentives for automakers that produce more than 200,000 vehicles in the country over six years. Toyota Motor and Mitsubishi Motors have already qualified. Manila hopes that policies meant to boost local production of a new breed of jeepneys will help develop the domestic industry as well.

India’s Mahindra & Mahindra has also begun selling these vehicles, and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor aims to make shipments the middle of this year.

Auto rickshaws, the three-wheeled taxis popular in Indian cities, are also being forced to evolve. Mahindra started selling an electric rickshaw that emits no carbon dioxide in 2017 and began mass production in Bangalore last year.

Tokyo-based Terra Motors is producing an electric three-wheeler in the country aimed at rickshaw drivers. Bajaj Auto, a local maker of two-wheeled vehicles, is reportedly planning to release an electric three-wheeler as early as this year.

Bajaj is also going to release a four-wheeled vehicle in Indonesia that runs on natural gas, designed as a replacement for three-wheeled ones.

Meanwhile, Thailand will electrify 22,000 tuk-tuks by 2025. Government officials have said they will support local battery production to reduce the nation’s reliance on imports.

Southeast Asian nations are upgrading these forms of public transport as environmental measures become a pressing concern due to the proliferation of cars in the region.

New-car sales in Southeast Asia’s six largest countries surged 70% in the decade through 2018, reaching 3.57 million. There are now more than 84 million cars in Thailand, Indonesia and India combined, a 160% increase in the last decade.

Traffic and pollution have become severe in major urban areas as a result. There is concern that the rising concentration of particulate matter in Bangkok’s air will keep tourists away, for example.

To combat global warming, India will raise emissions standards for all cars to Euro 6 from Euro 4 in 2020, generating backlash from local industries that must shoulder the replacement costs.