Travel to Cambodia for a tropical getaway, and one would probably see the unique mode of transport that is known as the ‘tuk-tuk’. A motorized version of the cycle rickshaw, the ‘tuk-tuk’ had gained its name from the interestingly distinctive hum from the early models. Since then, the three-wheeled vehicle has come a long way, not only as an affordable option for locals but also as a tourist attraction.
Since its introduction, the tuk-tuk has gone through various rounds of modernization, its technology and quality improving over the years. As the needs and concerns of users evolve over time, manufacturers seek new ways to improve their product with new aims in mind. Most recently, the new version of the auto-rickshaw ONiON T1 was introduced by MVLLABS, a Singapore-based mobility startup offering ride-hailing service TADA in Southeast Asia.
My curiosity was piqued when I saw the news. My memory of the partially enclosed vehicle came from the experience I had during my travels years ago. I wanted to know how the vehicle has been improved for better experience and performance. But more importantly, how a Singapore-based startup decided to use their expertise in the unique world of ‘tuk-tuks’.
When I spoke to Poly Chim, the General Manager of MVL Cambodia, he shared that they have already been providing ride-hailing service TADA in the country since two years ago. Since 2019, TADA has grown from just a few hundred drivers to more than 20,000 drivers currently.
As the tuk-tuks provide more shelter than bicycles and are more mobile than cars, Poly attributed the increase to its convenience for inner-city transportation. Other than that, the increased demand for delivery services had also contributed to its growth.
However, the increased popularity of the Tuk Tuk also meant causing more stress for the environment. In 2018, it was reported that the transportation sector has contributed further to decreasing air quality in the country due to the increasing number of vehicles and fuel consumption.
This was also something that came to the attention of the MVL Cambodia team. During their time on the ground, they had observed a number of inefficiencies in the vehicle design of Tuk Tuk. Poly mentioned how fuel usage is one of the main issues, “Traditional tuk-tuks currently use Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) fuel, which is environmentally unfriendly because of the emissions that are being released.”
Not only is LPG fuel detrimental to the environment, but the fuel consumption also affects the driver’s income. Currently, the price of LPG fuels has increased to more than 2000 KHR per liter. Due to the cost of owning and fuelling the vehicle, the driver’s earnings are often being offset. Since most tuk-tuk drivers support their livelihoods through ride-hailing or delivery services, hence cost efficiency was a huge concern for them. In order to solve this issue, the MVL team came up with a battery-swapping subscription service for their ONiON T1, which will decrease the overall spending by 20 – 30%.
“We wanted to tackle two main areas for improvement: fuel inefficiency and environmental impact, as this directly impacted the lives of everyone. By providing a more environmentally friendly option that comes together with the newly constructed vehicle, this will be able to provide cost savings as compared to the daily refilling of LPG fuels.” Poly also shared that this was in line with their zero-commission model at TADA, which allowed the drivers to keep 100% of their earnings.
Other than that, I was also curious to know what other issues the drivers faced, which they had managed to mitigate with their new model of auto-rickshaw. With that, Poly mentioned that typically, a Cambodian ‘tuk-tuk’ driver spends between 10 to 15 hours per day driving under harsh weather conditions. With the traditional tuk-tuk, the vehicle might not be able to withstand long hours over a long period of time, thus resulting in higher maintenance fees.
Understanding the concerns by the drivers, they designed a sturdier frame that allows better outdoor protection, while also ensuring better aerodynamic performance. This ensured that the drivers could be protected while being on the road for long periods of time.
When asked about the challenges faced with the design of the vehicle, Poly detailed the amount of work that went through by studying the market. “Our team spent a lot of time laying the groundwork through interviews, surveys, on-ground observation, and testing with drivers to learn their pain points. We had to tackle many engineering challenges to design a high-quality yet affordable product, but it was important to us that we are creating products tailored for our target users’ needs.”
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown in the country, the team also had unforeseen challenges regarding logistics. Even though there were slight delays due to traveling issues between teams, Poly also expressed his gratitude to his team for pulling through in difficult times, “Due to their hard work, we have managed to successfully launch our prototypes. We hope to start our mass production soon so that we can provide a better transportation solution for the whole of Cambodia.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption in many industries. Having seen reports on how the pandemic has affected the livelihoods of tuk-tuk drivers due to the decline in tourism, I was curious as to how this would affect the adoption of the new vehicle.
To the question, Poly agreed that drivers, especially those that rely on ride-hailing as their main source of income, have been greatly affected. However, he replied with optimism, “The good thing is there has been an increase in demand for delivery services recently in Cambodia which serves as an alternative way of earning. TADA Cambodia (also a subsidiary of MVL) is currently enjoying its growth in the delivery business and that will help sustain the livelihoods of those drivers during this difficult time.”
When it comes to technology adoption in developing countries such as Cambodia, the common perception is that adoption rates for new technologies are lower. One of the biggest reasons lies in the cost of adopting such technologies. However, Poly also noted the improvements in accessibility and affordability of infrastructure and internet access in recent years.
“Personally, I feel that the Cambodian people will be the first movers in joining this technological advancement. The country has one of the youngest populations in the region, which is a good indicator for faster technological adoption.”
With anticipation for a post-COVID world, Poly added, “We hope to see a fairer mobility ecosystem where all drivers can maximize their earning and enjoy better lives through proper ride-hailing and delivery services offered by TADA. We set our sights on making this mobility greener through the gradual adoption of EVs, starting with ONiON T1. Hopefully, we can see T1 running throughout Cambodia as well as neighboring countries.”