Friday, June 05, 2015

Tricycles and sidecars: a good alternative for fleet renewal in 3rd-world countries

Derelict old beaters are still a common sight in some 3rd-world countries, many still getting daily-driven either for professional purposes or as a private commuter, but the high average age of the fleet is often approached as a matter of concern not just due to the outdated emission regulations enforced when those vehicles were made but also due to safety issues. Apart from the absence of airbags, crumple zones, side-impact beams, anti-lock brakes, whatever became mandatory in newer vehicles, the effects of all the wear and tear and eventually some lack of preventive maintenance are anything but negligible.

However, the purchasing price of a brand-new car, even an economy-class one such as a Toyota Etios, is often too expensive for many 3rd-world customers, and the ever-growing technical complexity is also usually pointed as a downside of newer vehicles. Also, in spite of stricter emission regulations enforced nowadays, there is some questioning about the real footprint of a modern car vs. keeping an old beater on the road due to all the energy spent to manufacture a new vehicle, even if that involves recycling materials from scrapped jalopies instead of just increasing the mining for raw materials. Another aspect to consider regards to fuel-efficiency: not even the ever-growing fuel costs seem to justify the initial purchasing price of a new econobox, considering the marginal mileage improvements over an old beater such as a Ford Escort Mk.3 with the Renault-based CHT engine.

In this scenario, tricycles and motorcycles fitted with sidecars sound as a sensible alternative, due to their attractive purchasing price and some real improvement regarding fuel-efficiency. The lower safety standards compared to a modern car, although seeming like an enormous disadvantage, are less noticeable compared to the random old econobox of comparable role going to be replaced. It may even pose as an environmental advantage, since the lesser amount of safety gadgets also means that less raw materials and energy are required during the manufacturing process of the tricycles and motorcycles, and usually a lesser amount of replacement parts throughout the predictable useful operational life of the vehicle.

However, in some countries such as Brazil, passenger transport in sidecars is seen as a taboo. Motorcycles are often treated as being somehow "inferior" to a car, and the wide usage of sidecars by the Nazi troops in World War II is still a strong stereotype, even among some segments of the Brazilian youth. After showing the picture of a Honda CG 125 with a passenger sidecar to a handful of random Brazilian teenager boys, one of them quoted it as a "Nazi bike" just because he has seen motorcycles with sidecars in WWII-themed movies, while others recalled the cargo sidecars that have actually become popular among small businesses in Brazil due to the low operating cost and widely used for LPG gas and bottled water home delivery. The lack of prestige in passenger transport is a less relevant matter when it comes to cargo hauling...

Despite all the practical advantages of a tricycle or a motorcycle with sidecar over a car in an identical operational scenario such as a Fiat Uno, the outdated emission regulations enforced for motorcycles were constantly held against them to discredit any of their environmental advantage regarding other aspects. However, the availability of electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters has reached even low-displacement motorcycles, which turned them as strictly-regulated concerning to emissions as a car. Even alternative fuel capability became a reality, and while some countries in Asia approached to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) there are some gasoline-ethanol flexfuel motorcycles available in Brazil, such as the Honda CG 150 Mix, rebadged as FlexOne after a recent restyling.

Now, a matter of controversy: can a cheap motorcycle-based utility tricycle be deemed more eco-friendly than a much more hyped hybrid car? Performance-wise, a tricycle powered by an air-cooled 150cc carburettor-fed engine is clearly disadvantaged, with a top speed usually around 60 to 80km/h which sounds enough for inner-city traffic but does compromise the safety on road, although some beefier engine up to 250cc or 300cc would provide some higher power reserve for occasional highway rides and the fuel-efficiency wouldn't be so disadvantaged due to the higher weight compared to a motorcycle. Aerodynamics also harm both fuel-efficiency and road performance, but there is a lot of room for improvements in this field. Anyway, an air-cooled 150cc carburettor-fed engine still leads to Prius-like 25km/l (4L/100km) average fuel consumption figures in a poorly-aerodynamic tricycle, so a bigger liquid-cooled engine combined to a wider gear spread and some aerodynamic enhancements turn the overall performance more suitable to occasional road stretches.

Despite all the skepticism and criticism they may still face both by people from developed countries who see it with some disdain as a makeshift or even in 3rd-world countries where private car ownership is still regarded as a status symbol, tricycles and sidecars are an economically-attractive and technically-viable option to meet the requirements of budget-constrained customers seeking for a good alternative to get rid of an old jalopy, considering not just their low cost of ownership but also the overall environmental footprint which might also cater to some segments of 1st-world markets willing to pose somewhat "environmentally-correct".