KATMANDU, Nepal — The streets of this crowded tourist city are like a slow-moving showroom of the auto industry, with packs of buses, cars, taxis and motorbikes chugging along.
But if you take a closer look, you will find that some of the smaller buses have only one front wheel. They have no exhaust, and they don't chug. Emblazoned with a sign that says "Save Kathmandu," they are among the smallest and least-familiar models in the world's growing fleet of electric vehicles: the battery-powered "autorickshaw."
Nepal has been one of the lowest nations in the rankings of national economic output, but that has not stopped electric vehicles from finding a peculiar niche. Local businesses have already persuaded more than 100,000 commuters in Katmandu to ride the autorickshaws every day as they pick up passengers on designated routes.
Now they're beginning to push more advanced electric vehicles into the market for the more knowledgeable and well-heeled buyers. A poster in one of the showrooms says: "Do Not Let Petroleum Hold You Back, Go Electricity Today."
For the 2.5 million people who live in this area, driving electric vehicles will be liberating in more ways than one. Nepal has no native fossil fuels, so every drop of oil used here has to come from India, which drains Nepal's limited foreign currency.
"Electric vehicles are important for Nepal," said Binod Prasad Shrestha, director of the Nepal office at Winrock International, an Arkansas nonprofit organization that supports Nepal's electric vehicle development.
"It helps with climate change mitigation," Shrestha said. "Also, we are now spending more on fossil fuel imports than what we make from our total exports."
When smog came to Shangri-La
"Even though conventional cars are becoming cleaner, the number of cars on the road is making air quality worse," explained Lloyd Wright, a senior transport specialist at the Asian Development Bank.
"Electric vehicle is a good solution, especially for countries with clean energy," Wright explained, noting that its fuel demands fit the energy source Nepal has: hydroelectric power.
By the 1990s, Nepal had already started electrifying its transportation system. At that time, Katmandu, once renowned as Shangri-La for its natural beauty, was enveloped by a smell of diesel, due to vehicle emissions.
To clear the air, in 1993, the U.S.-based Global Resources Institute began an experiment of converting diesel-powered rickshaws into battery-operated ones. Then a group of Nepali engineers, using imported auto parts, produced the more powerful electric three-wheeled autorickshaws. They're commonly known here as "SAFA Tempo," or "clean three-wheelers" in Nepali.
The fleet grew from seven in 1993 to 500 in 2005. Meanwhile, an indigenous electric vehicle industry took shape. During the early 2000s, dozens of recharging stations were installed and four assembly factories were built.
But Nepal's demand for electric vehicles fell shortly after 2005, when the government refused to let electric three-wheelers operate on more commuter routes and began importing diesel-powered minibuses.
'Lady drivers' come to the rescue
The Nepali electric vehicle industry blamed its development slowdown on diesel-powered vehicle importers, as well as on corrupt officials who wanted to profit from import taxes and fossil fuels trading. The government denied that, asserting that electric three-wheelers were involved in collisions in which drivers were found speeding.
The electric vehicle owners came up with an inspired political fix: hiring women. The idea was that "lady drivers" would put a gentler hand on the wheel.