Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Quadbike - Solution to Urban Personal Transport Problems?

Picture this: You reside in one of those cities which have a pathetic public transportation system (well, that covers just about every one of the big Indian cities) and you have to use your private vehicle to commute to work. In a majority of the cases, this would mean using a 2-wheeler for your daily transportation needs. It is the cheapest, quickest and the most convenient way of getting around our congested cities. Well, almost.

One point that we conveniently forget (or choose to knowingly ignore) is Safety. It has been proven - statistically or otherwise - that 2-wheelers are not at all safe. Even if one rides responsibly, one is left at the mercy of the other drivers and riders. That, coupled with the possibility of falling off, makes it really unsafe. There are also other factors that come into play here. 2-wheelers are all the more unsafe for women, mainly because of the way they sit in the pillion (both legs to one side).

The combination of all these factors has resulted in me not allowing my parents, especially my mom, to sit on a 2-wheeler of late. Whats more, I constantly find myself finding excuses to take the car rather than the 2-wheeler whenever I'm going around the city. "I have to carry the laptop, it is very heavy". "It looks like it might rain in the evening". The excuses get sillier every passing day. Like, "I just washed the car yesterday. I want to take it out atleast once before it gets dirty again"!!

So there you are: Me, a staunch environmentalist, driving the car to work - ALONE, or when there are only 2 persons. And yet, I justify it. I don't want to compromise on my safety or my convenience. Is there any solution to this?

Well, the obvious solution that comes to my mind is that the Government should improve public transportation. Although steps are being taken in this direction, it still seems a tall ask from the Governments, whose primary focus these days is to safeguard their own existence, rather than public interests.

This is where I think automobile manufacturers could step in. Before we look decades into the future (like fossil fuels being entirely replaced by solar energy), I think we need to think about the nearer future. Why not bridge the gap between car and bike? What I'm referring to is 4-wheeled motorbikes, or 2-seater cars - whichever way you look at it; with the seating arrangement being one behind the other, rather than side-by-side. A bit of googling around threw up some interesting results, but not quite what I had in mind. My brain dug out something I had read in an automobile magazine about a 6-7 years back. It had a hand-sketch of this really neat concept car. Since I do not have the image or the link, let me try to describe the vehicle in words. For want of a better term, I call it a quadbike.

The quadbike would be shorter than our small cars (about 3 metres), it would be just about half as wide (0.7 to 0.8 m), and to compensate for the slim-long make, it would need to have a low center of gravity, thus making it shorter in height too (maybe about 1 m??). If powered by, say a 300 cc engine, it might generate around 20-25 bhp. It would be easy to maneuver around the city, and especially easy to park. It could return a fuel efficiency figure of around 30+ kmpl. Probably it could be steering-wheel driven too.The entire package could cost less than 1 lakh rupees if mass-produced. It seems to be a good compromise - offering the safety of a car and maneuverability and efficiency of a bike.

It all sounds so simple. Someone somewhere must have thought about it (I mean among manufacturers AND Govt). To my delight, I found that a recent issue of the auto magazine "Top Gear" also has echoed my thoughts! Then why is it that nobody is doing anything about it?

Well the reason i can think of is this: I think car and bike manufacturers alike consider a quadbike as a threat to their respective products. Who knows, such an idea might have been proposed by some well-meaning entity, but put off by the car and bike manufacturer's lobby. However, what surprises me is that if these manufacturers see such potential in a quadbike, then why don't they seriously give a thought to foraying into it themselves?

One reason could be the R&D costs, as well as the time and effort that might be required for developing such a vehicle. These factors would scare away the smaller companies for sure. Still, the big names could pitch in. The Tatas are spending billions on their Rs. 1 Lakh car - thats an example of big money being spent on R&D. Nissan has already "announced" plans to come in with a small car in 2009 - three years in advance! That shows companies have devoted plenty of time for R&D.

So, it would definitely be in evreyone's interests if the Govt and industry take the 4-wheeled bikes concept seriously.Just think about it. Less congestion, less pollution, more easily accessible, affordable to the public as well.

And most importantly, all this without compromising on safety. Such a technology would buy us more time before we run out of fossil fuels; thus lengthening our endeavour to perfect the technologies of the future. The public will definitely do its bit to save and protect the environment. As long as the Government and industry play their part.

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