America Is Missing Out on the Biggest EV Boom of All

Consider the electric rickshaw

An image of two electric rickshaws
Saumya Khandelwal/Redux

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Across Asia, many daily trips are made on three wheels. The auto rickshaw is more or less a motorcycle in the front and a party in the back in the form of benches, seats, or cargo space. Rickshaws—derived from hand-pulled carts via a bicycle-based version—come in a range of styles, from fully enclosed boxes to more open options topped with a simple shade canopy. Made for low speeds and urban settings, they are typically run like taxis, operated by drivers who take people and things from place to place for a fee. They can weave in and out of traffic in cities where a car would make little headway.

And they are electrifying faster than basically any other type of vehicle. As of 2021, more than one-fifth of two- and three-wheeled vehicles in China were electric. Last year, half of Indian rickshaws sold were electric, according to Shazan Siddiqi, an analyst at the market-research firm IDTechEx who wrote a roundup of the global market for “micro EVs,” which include two- and three-wheelers. Compare that with the share of American passenger vehicles sold last year that were electric: just 5.8 percent.

So the U.S. has a ways to go before it electrifies its most popular form of transport. Incentives that were passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act could help with that. Maybe. Eventually. Late last week, the Treasury Department laid out specifications for EVs to be eligible for tax credits of up to $7,500—and the list of fully eligible cars is likely to be pretty short, at least for a while. While we wait for cheaper electric cars, America shouldn’t tune out the e-rickshaw revolution. In many ways, they are the perfect EV.

Because rickshaws require less power than your typical four-wheeled passenger car, they are simply easier and cheaper to electrify than cars. When lead-acid batteries that could be charged with existing infrastructure got much cheaper about 15 years ago, Indians wanted in. Demand from rickshaw drivers prompted small shops to build electric rickshaws from imported components. We’re basically talking “artisanal e-rickshaws” here. “They order components, cheap off-the-shelf components from China, and then build them in India locally, and then sell them for a really low price,” Siddiqi said. The big vehicle manufacturers found themselves behind the trend, but they caught up pretty quickly. Last month, the Indian automaker Mahindra manufactured its 50,000th e-Alfa, an electric passenger rickshaw with a 1.5-kilowatt motor—about two horsepower, as compared with the Chevy Bolt’s 200 horsepower—that retails for less than $1,800.

E-rickshaws are a big deal for the climate. India and China are among the countries where emissions are rising fastest. In many Asian countries, two-and-three wheelers account for half the gasoline used on the road. Every electric three-wheeler knocks out about three to six tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to one analysis in Pakistan—about the same amount emitted by a typical passenger car in the United States. That’s because, even though they are smaller and lighter, most rickshaws ply the roads basically all day, whereas most privately owned vehicles are parked 95 percent of the time.

Other countries where rickshaws are common are electrifying too—albeit at less dizzying rates. Thailand, where rickshaws are known as “tuk-tuks,” is pushing to electrify its fleet, in part to cut down on air pollution in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Rickshaws are generally found in Asia, but three-wheeled EVs take a wide range of forms under various names across the world. In Khartoum, Sudan, where the electricity grid is unreliable, some three-wheelers are being charged with solar panels. I currently live in central Paris, where traffic congestion and narrow streets have pushed many people away from full-size cars and toward a constellation of smaller vehicles on two, three, or four wheels. Many packages in my neighborhood are delivered by electrified cargo tricycles. The French company Yokler makes a version with a “panoramic windshield,” “an ultra-robust ‘motorcycle’ design,” and room for two passengers in addition to the driver. It’s basically an electric rickshaw, although the motor is weaker than the one in the ​​e-Alfa and its ilk, because drivers are supposed to also pedal.

Even in America, where bigger has traditionally been seen as better, the nimble and cheap electric three-wheeler is worth taking seriously. Shifting everyone from a giant SUV powered by gas to a giant SUV powered by electricity is hardly a perfect solution to transport emissions. Building a giant car with a giant battery and powering it with electricity that is not yet 100 percent renewable is not a zero-impact proposition. A diverse portfolio of small electrics, along with mass transit and urban planning that encourages walking, is actually much better for the planet. E-bikes seem to be catching on around the world, and especially in Asia and Europe. But shifting transport modes can be a bumpy ride. Rental electric scooters have been so enthusiastically adopted in some cities that they’ve faced some blowback. On Sunday, Parisians overwhelmingly voted to ban the zippy little monsters—because many users ignore traffic laws. However, few people seem to object to the growing number of rickshaw-adjacent electrified trikes.

So should Americans keen to drive something good for the planet consider a three-wheeled option? There are a few domestically available versions, including the “Fun Utility Vehicle,” assembled in my home state of Oregon. But Siddiqi says that because most cannot be driven on the highway, he doesn’t think rickshaws will be adopted at any kind of scale in America. Most American companies who make them have pivoted from direct-to-consumer sales to selling fleets of vehicles to companies for niche uses such as urban-core package delivery, trash pickup, or moving tourists around.

But Siddiqi is just slightly more optimistic about the microcar. These are teeny-tiny four-wheeled cars that top out at less than 30 miles per hour. Like rickshaws, they can’t be driven on the highway. But given their more familiar form and fully enclosed passenger area, Siddiqi says he can imagine them being adopted by people who live in a big city where parking is a nightmare—or who need a second vehicle for running kids to school and picking up groceries. In Siddiqi’s admittedly idealistic vision of the future, the average American garage has “one e-bike, one standard passenger EV—whether that be a big SUV or a big, nice family car like a van—and then maybe a mini or micro EV that sort of fills in the gap.”

In the U.S., the rickshaw story is a reminder that cars aren’t everything. Especially as Americans wait for cheaper electric cars, e-bikes, three-wheelers, micro-cars, and even the much maligned electric scooter can help us go green, even if they can’t entirely replace cars. Perhaps the best EV for you already exists.