An auto rickshaw (auto or trishaw in popular parlance) is a vehicle for hire that is one of the chief modes of transport in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and is popular in many other countries. It is a motorized version of the traditional rickshaw, a small two- or three-wheeled cart pulled by a person, and the velotaxi. The auto rickshaw is also related to its Thai cousin, the tuk-Tuk and the becak (Bajaj) in Indonesia.
An auto rickshaw is generally characterized by a tin/iron body resting on three small wheels (one in front, two on the rear), a small cabin for the driver (called an auto-wallah in some areas) in the front and seating for three in the rear. Autos are generally fitted with a motorcycle version of a two-stroke engine with a handlebar for control (again like motorcycles) instead of a steering wheel, effectively making them a three-wheeler motorcycle carrying passengers on the rear seat. The earlier versions of autos had the engine in front; current versions are an improvement, and have it in the rear. However, the former version has still not become extinct. In North India, there is a variation, powered by a Harley-Davidson engine, called the phat-phati because of the sound it makes. However this is almost extinct because of the amount of pollution it causes. Safety is a major concern regarding auto rickshaws. Their flimsy chassis makes them dangerous to passengers even in accidents that are far from severe. They are also not well-equipped to protect their passengers from rain, air pollution or extremes of temperature.
Auto Rickshaws in India
A majority of Indian auto rickshaws have no doors or seatbelts. They are generally black and yellow in colour and have a canopy on the top. Their design varies considerably from place to place. In some locations, they have an extra plank on the seat to accommodate a fourth passenger. In reality it is not uncommon to see 6-8 passengers in an auto rickshaw with such an ad hoc setup, although, in theory, autos risk fines for carrying more than three passengers in many places. Auto rickshaws that are used for driving children to school have two extra seats/planks like narrow ledges, one facing the main seating space and one to the side. Such auto rickshaws may transport up to 20 children to school. In India, it is common to find a mechanic's shop around every corner, thus allowing auto-wallahs easy access to spot-repairs. As a mode of transport, the auto rickshaw is turning out to be a major employer in India. Many graduate youths drive auto rickshaws. All major nationalized banks of India offer loans to buy one under self-employment schemes.
Fuel Efficiency and Pollution
In July 1998, the Supreme Court of India ordered the Delhi government to implement CNG or LPG fuel for all autos and for the entire bus fleet in and around the city. Delhi observed a dramatic improvement in the quality of air with the switch to CNG, and this is important for a city where it is not uncommon to see pedestrians and drivers wearing nurse's masks for protection against the prevalent city smog. Now, auto-wallahs in Delhi have to wait in long queues to get their CNG cylinders re-filled. Certain other local governments are also pushing for four-stroke engines instead of the current two-stroke versions.
Auto-rickshaws have a top-speed of around 50 km/h and a cruising speed of around 35 km/h. Traffic authorities in big cities have implemented different mechanisms to circumvent the resulting traffic slow-down issues. Autos are also banned from plying in the older, more crowded areas of Mumbai, south of Bandra.
Some arterial roads of Chennai have a separate lane earmarked for autos and slow two-wheelers. However, this doesn't mean that the typical Chennai auto is slow. The Chennai auto driver is considered the most daring of species who manoeuvres the auto in very tight situations without compromising on speed. The triangular form of the auto also makes this easier, with the front single wheel negotiating the available gap, and the rear two wheels forcing a larger space that results from frightened drivers of all other types of vehicles moving away!
Autos have to install a taximeter according to Indian law. Many do not have one, however, and even among those that do, some drivers refuse to turn them on. Hiring often involves bargaining with the driver.
In large cities, where meters are installed, auto-wallahs charge the passengers on the basis of a meter inside the auto that is generally reset at the beginning of the journey. But auto-wallahs across India are often accused of fleecing money by installing faulty meters, taking a longer route to the destination and demanding multiple times the fare early in the morning or late at night, or at times when other means of transport are not available (a good example can be the frequent public transport strikes in India). Auto-wallahs generally defend themselves against such accusations by blaming the government for its negligence of market realities while fixing the distance-based fares. Cities such as Chennai have strong auto-driver unions which have a notorious reputation for being passenger-unfriendly. Passengers unfamiliar with the local language are considered particularly vulnerable to overcharging.
It is not uncommon for passengers to leave their valuables behind in the auto rickshaw. In such cases, some auto-wallahs with integrity and professional ethics return them either to the nearest police station or even directly to the home of the original owner.
In cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, traffic-regulating authorities have tried to implement pre-paid schemes where the passengers pay pre-determined auto-fares (depending on the destination) to some central authority and board the autos. The auto-wallah claims the money later by showing the receipt given by the passenger. However, it is still far more common for a prospective passenger to simply flag down a rickshaw and negotiate a price without an intermediary official (for reasons like non-availability of prepaid autos at all locations and not wanting to queue up for a long time at the counter.)
Sharing an auto with unknown passengers is also common in India. Competition among 'share' auto-wallahs has led to the virtual standardization of fare per passenger based on their destination. Shared autos vary both in name and size from place to place. They are called "Phat-a-phats" in Delhi (which are actually variants of what were once horse-driven vehicles), "8-seater autos" in Hyderabad and "Polaamboo vans" in Chennai. These large share autos shuttle over a distance of 10 to 15 km to gather a substantial number of commuters. Shared autos play an important role in transporting urban India, where state-organized public transport, while not quite crippled, is congested to a point of extreme unreliability, especially during peak hours.
There are no tipping standards in most parts of the subcontinent. However it is seen as a good courtesy for passengers to round off the amount to the nearest full Rupee. Quite often, auto-wallahs themselves are reluctant to return the "chhutta"(Hindi)/"chillara"(Tamil) ("small change", typically few tens of Paisas) back to the passenger.
Chartered and School Autos
Chartered auto services, where the auto-wallah caters to the hirer at a fixed time every day are also common, especially to ferry children on their trips to and from school, in major cities. Such autos often have tailor-made arrangements for extra seating. Children squeezed tight with their school bags in the gaps is a typical characteristic of these autos. Sometimes, such chartered autos violate traffic rules flagrantly by overloading the passenger area with uncomplaining and playful kids - and this has often led to the autos meeting with minor to fatal accidents, which has prompted stricter control and vigilance by parents and traffic authorities.
Slogans and Advertisements on Rickshaws
Auto-wallahs flaunt their affection for film stars, cricket stars and political leaders by putting posters of them both on auto interiors and exteriors. The latest movie title of the auto-wallah's favorite movie star generally appears on the back of the auto.
Lines like "Jai Bajrang Bali" (reference to Hanuman), "Jai Ma Kali," "Khoda Hafiz", "Jesus loves you", even "Jehovah, the lord is my protector," make regular appearance on rickshaws. Sometimes, a picture with all major religious symbols (Om from Hinduism, Star and Crescent from Islam, and Crucifix from Christianity) are to be seen. Such symbols have played an exceptional role in saving the auto during communal riots. More secular messages like "Small family, happy family", "We two, ours one" (on population control), "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" and "Dont pollite the air" (sic) can also be seen.
Other inscriptions can be just plain colorful. Poetry, personal slogans, catch phrases from pop culture and just humorous comments often appear. The blog Rickshaw! (http://rickshaw.blogspot.com) captures some of the slogans on the backs of rickshaws.
Autos also feature commercials on the back of their canopy. Autos in India's Silicon Valley Bangalore have advertisements of institutes teaching programming languages like C, C++ and Java. Certain autos are equipped with locally-made music systems that play tracks from latest musical hits in volumes above normal levels.
In cities like Hyderabad (India), where house numbering is complex, auto-wallahs often turn out to be the only source for spotting out the house for a given address.
In Chennai and Bangalore, auto drivers many a time express a strong preference or bias in terms of direction of destination, and the hapless would-be commuter has to hop from auto to auto searching for the right one.
Auto-Wallahs in Film
Auto-wallahs are generally portrayed with negative shades in Indian films. They are shown as villains who kidnap passengers or ones who fleece money. One exception is Tamil super star Rajinikanth's Baasha. Rajnikanth is shown as the best of benefactors in the movie and thus he has been an icon among auto-wallahs. Auto stands in Tamil Nadu have pictures of Rajinikanth showing their devotion for him.
Auto Rickshaws and Crime
In many cities in Southern India, auto rickshaws have had a notorious reputation for being the vehicle of operation in shady criminal activities, which range from petty thievery and "chain snatching" (a slang for the act of relieving the necklace jewellery worn by Indian women) to murder. Auto Shankar, a notorious psychopathic killer operated in Chennai as an autowallah in the 1980s. The image of auto rickshaws in such cities has suffered greatly due to such incidents, but it should be noted that such incidents are on the decline and with increasing number of educated youth taking to auto-driving as a self-sufficient profession and with frequent newspaper reports of honest drivers returning lost valuables (left behind by forgetful commuters) public confidence in autos has been improving.
The Future of the Auto Rickshaw in India
Scientists at Indian Institute of Science have come up with a prototype of a Hybrid Electric Vehicle powered both by fossil fuels and electricity. IISc sees this as a potential revolution in Indian commercial transport as it has much lower emission levels than the conventional petrol (gasoline) vehicles.
Usage of communication technologies like simple walkie-talkies or radio frequency transmitters and receivers have enabled taxis to form networks and work collaboratively, thereby generating more revenue. This renders taxi-services much more efficient and easy to access. Although call-taxi is a recent success, it is quite unlikely to unseat the ensconced auto industry as it is still a luxury of the huge Indian middle class.
Auto-wallahs have recently started using mobile phones as well, and are trying to figure out how they could help add value and increase revenue.
Auto Rickshaws in Pakistan
One of the major brands of auto rickshaws in Pakistan is Vespa - Italian Company. In addition to ferrying people around, an innovative use of auto-rickshaws in public life was the demonstration in Peshawar in 2001 against the American invasion of Afghanistan. The problem of environmental pollution caused by auto rickshaws in major Pakistani cities is a growing menace. Environment Canada is implementing pilot projects in Lahore, Karachi and Quetta with engine technology developed in Mississauga that uses CNG instead of leaded petrol in the two-stroke engines.
Auto Rickshaws in Thailand
The tuk-tuk is the Thai version of the auto rickshaw. It may have been derived from a similar Japanese non-motorised automobile in the 1950s. Tuk-tuks are quite powerful, unlike their Indian cousins: they can go faster than taxis. A lot of the drivers are from the provinces and have a reputation from not knowing Bangkok very well and therefore getting people lost. Unlike on the subcontinent, tuk-tuks are not cheaper to use than taxis. They were proposed to be declared Thailand's national car (although that seems a remote prospect).
Auto Rickshaws in Peru
The mototaxi or moto is the Peruvian incarnation of the auto rickshaw. These are most commonly made from the front end and engine of a motorcycle attached to a two-wheeled passenger area in back. Commercially produced models such as the Indian Bajaj brand are also employed.
'Bajajs' in Indonesia