The Curious Case Of The 3-Wheeler/Mototaxi Design

Photography of a blue three-wheeler mototaxi

While car designers break their heads to invent new ways of sustainable transport, there is one vehicle that already fulfills the needs of millions every day. Is not a fancy car, is not an innovative marvel of engineering and design, is not even comfortable, but is cost-effective and does the job as demanded. The 3-wheeler mototaxi is a particular vehicle that allows people in all the world to do their life, this is a small inspection on why this vehicle is so useful and why we should put more attention on it.

The Motorcycle–Car

Sketch of the inside of a three-wheeler
Sketches of mototaxis

A 3-wheeler is a hybrid between motorcycle and car, that runs at low speeds (~60km/h). The engine is from a motorcycle (~200cc), the suspension comes from a car, the chasis is a mix of stamped metal and tubings. It can carry 3 people. At contraire to motorcycles this vehicle has reverse. It is “light” (~300kg), and well, that’s all.

There are many manufacturers around the world, but as far as I know, TVS an indian? company is one of the largest companies and China is one of the countries that also manufactures and uses these vehicles.

Why are 3-wheelers/mototaxis the choice of so many people?

Photograph of a man in front of a white mototaxi on a gas station in Tlaxcala Mexico
A Mototaxi In Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Well, because besides being cheap, they are… convenient.

The disadvantages of these vechicles are obvious, but the benefits come mainly from the social transportation dynamics, which means that people tend to use these vehicles in rural areas or cities where transport is used in small groups, they use them mostly as taxis.

In Mexico, these vehicles are used in small villages where agriculture is a big part of the local economy. Many of this villages still have dirt roads, and streets are narrow, regular cars can’t move easily among houses, here 3-wheelers mototaxis are effective.

In other parts of the developing world, is usual to see big avenues with a stream of small vehicles, a mix of bicycles, motorcycles, mototaxis and buses. People is used to this kind of transit and 3-wheelers are the perfect choice for couples and small families, or people with bags and luggage that needs to move relatively fast or more privately.

The Design And Engineering Of A 3-Wheeler

Sketches of the structure and diagrams of the suspension of a three-wheeler
Sketching the suspension of a 3-wheeler.

When thinking of desigining a new product there are several approaches: cost effectivenessstylingperformance, or the worst: a combination of the three. In this case, companies that design this vehicles are all about cost effectiveness.

These vehicles have little engineering and design investment. Even the electric version that chinese make, are not that innovative. I’ve seen that many rely on old battery technology (like the one used in golf carts) instead of new versions of Lithium-Ion technology. All design “improvements” are just facades that don’t make the vehicle safer or more comfortable.

If you look at the components and methods of manufacturing of the 3-wheelers you’ll find out that parts are easy to substitute, there is no need for engineer new components because car and motorcycle industries already offer good alternatives. The chasis, which makes the vehicle a 3-wheeler, is the only part that requires production engineering. So 3-wheelers are easy to make and cheap.

I think that people who buy 3-wheelers usually have a commercial purpose in mind, they use them as mototaxis or for cargo or delivery. The price of these vehicles is around US $4,000 (an electric skateboard is almost as expensive as a 3-wheeler 😱).

The Underrated Vehicle

Sketch of the side of a three-wheeler passengers packaging

If you’re lucky enough to travel to countries in development, and if you are curious and go to the rural areas, is possible that you’ll have to use a mototaxi or see on the streets this 3-wheelers roaring with 2 passengers at the rear seat packed like a sardine can. 

If you watch closely, you’ll understand that this is a reliable, easy to mantain vehicle serves a ton of people. 

As I said at the beginning of this post, many car and motorcycle designers break their heads trying to find the perfect small car. There are car companies that were succesful with small cars, but safety regulations forced them to build bigger cars, and motorcycles are a fundamental vehicle for the world economy, but we all know their biggest disadvantage. 

The 3-wheeler mototaxi fill a gap that neitherthe smallest of actual cars or motorcycles can do, this is a broad gap, millions of people around the globe need effective transportation, and only a few can buy a regular car, but many of them can buy a vehicle that serves to other people, 3-wheelers effectively do this job.

I know, 3-wheelers/mototaxis are far far from perfect, and that’s my point, we, designers, should be looking at these vehicles as a source of ideas and concepts, and a source for good engineering problems.