An Indian man has completed an epic road trip from Bangalore to London in a small tuk-tuk, covering more than 14,000 kilometres in seven months. But it’s not just any old tuk-tuk – it runs on a mixture of electric and solar energy.
Ever since he was a child, Naveen Rabelli dreamed of going on a road trip round the world. But as he grew older and became an automotive engineer, he realized that embarking on this journey with a regular fuel-powered car would create a lot of pollution. He decided he could solve this problem by building himself a clean means of transportation, and dreamt up the solar tuk-tuk.
“I didn’t want to pollute the environment for my dream”
I wanted to follow my dream – but I didn’t want to pollute the environment in the process. The idea of the tuk-tuk came to me a few years ago when I was sitting in traffic in Bangalore, surrounded by a sea of noisy tuk-tuks – called ‘autorickshaws’ in India - all emitting lots of smoke. I thought, why not make it a zero emissions vehicle?
Over the course of three-and-a-half years, I built three different prototypes. I put my own money into the first two. To build the third one, which I drove during my trip, I did some crowdfunding and a few companies came forward to donate electronic parts.
Here’s how it worked: I bought a normal tuk-tuk and took the diesel engine out. Then I put in an electric motor, electric batteries and solar panels. I also did some modifications on the gearbox and made the cabin, complete with a bed, so I could spend nights in the tuk-tuk. I called it Tejas [Editor’s Note: in Sanskrit, this means “brilliance” or “radiance”.]
The tuk-tuk can drive up to 60 kilometres per hour, and the battery’s autonomy lasts for 80 kilometres.
“People I met were amazed that solar energy could power such a long journey”
I started my trip in Bangalore, India in February. I drove all the way to Mumbai, and then my tuk-tuk and I boarded a ship for Iran. I drove through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France… Then I took a ferry from France to the United Kingdom. I arrived just in time to showcase my tuk-tuk at an expo on low-carbon vehicles.
It was a fantastic journey for me. The best takeaway of the whole adventure was to see people’s smiles when they looked at the tuk-tuk. I would see these beautiful, honest smiles that I can never forget. Many people I met, at first, would be like, “Are you joking? This can’t possibly work!” But when I assured them that not only does it work, but that I came to their town by road – I showed them photos of my journey as proof – they were amazed. Most people knew how solar power worked, but few realised that it could power such a huge journey!
I spent some nights in my tuk-tuk, and some nights at people’s houses. At least 35 different people opened their homes to me. For food, I had a solar cooker, so when I stayed in the tuk-tuk, I could cook curry and all my favorite dishes. But I was also often invited by people I met for lunch and dinner. I would either shower at people’s houses or at lakes and rivers, or even in police and fire stations.
“In Iran, people even packed me breakfast”
Iran was the most hospitable country – people would literally drag me off the street and take me into their homes to meet their families and feed me! Sometimes they even packed me breakfast and lunch for the next day! Iranians were so curious about where I came from, and respectful of cultural differences. They accepted me as what I am.
The only real challenge during the entire journey came in France, where someone stole my passport and some of my belongings. That held me up for a few days.
The biggest lesson I learned is that big ideas start small. Little by little, step by step, I created my dream. And if a person like me in India, with not many resources, can do this, then I hope it will inspire other people in countries with more resources to start thinking about harnessing solar energy. The technology is there; it’s the mindsets that need to change.