Meet the city-based engineer and Austrian filmmaker who are about to embark on a road trip from Kerala to the UK. Their mode of transport? A solar-powered auto. By Anoop Menon
Enfields, Land Rovers and Jeeps. These are the vehicles that most Indians think of first, when planning a long road trip. But Naveen Rabelli, an automotive electronics engineer from Brookefields, is not your average Indian travel enthusiast. After leaving Kochi yesterday, he continues on his epic 10,000 km road trip — from Kochi to London — across 10 countries on a zero-emission, hand-made, solar powered auto rickshaw. He’s joined by an Austrian documentary filmmaker, Raoul Kopacka and together, they plan to showcase a sustainable, low-cost alternative transport solution, to connect with fellow environmentalists along the way and record air-pollution levels in different countries.
Engineer turned ecologist
“Big ideas, start small,” begins 33-year-old Rabelli, a staunch believer in spreading the word about sustainable energy solutions, elaborating, “I had to travel over 500 kms every week, while working in Melbourne (Australia) with Lumen (an automotive products design and manufacturing company) and I knew there had to be an eco-friendly way to go about it,” he claims. Eventually, Rabelli decided to take a break from work and travel from Melbourne to London via South East Asian countries and India. “India was just supposed to be a quick stop, as I had to attend a wedding—but then I ended up staying here for four years,” he laughs.
While in Bengaluru, Rabelli gained a deeper understanding of solar-electric sustainable solutions. He worked with the team at Mahindra, who created India’s first automatic electric car, Reva. He also lent a helping hand to create eco-friendly solutions via utilities like solar powered water-pumps for Protovillage (a rural community in Andhra Pradesh that enjoys ecological sustainability). It was while working there that he heard solar pioneer and fellow travel enthusiast, Louis Palmer (who travelled the globe on a solar-powered taxi) speak. And later that year, during a conversation with a friend about continuing his journey to London — while they were stuck in traffic at Brookefields, surrounded by smoke-spewing autos — Rabelli’s ‘small idea’ took root.
Making of Tejas
Since then, he quit his job and spent his entire life savings of `4 lakhs trying to create his solar-electric hybrid rickshaw named Tejas, after the Sanskrit word for radiance. “With sponsorship from our crowd-funding initiative, Symed Labs (Hyderabad), Cumberland Plastic Center (USA) and Telangana Tourism, the modifications needed were finally possible,” shares Rabelli, continuing, “I was determined to carry on and continued building a hybrid 13 kilo-watt engine prototype with Lithium-Ion batteries and six solar panels (on its roof and as foldable panels on its side), out of what was originally a second-hand, three-wheeled Piaggio Ape with a diesel guzzling engine,” he smiles. The first one and a half years were the toughest,
he explains. Everyone who had joined him to help, quit — as there were no quick results. He’d almost given up looking for a suitable team-mate. That was when he received an email from an Austrian, who had a few compelling reasons to join him on his epic journey.
The pillion rider
Documentary film maker Kopacka heard about Rabelli’s intiative through a sustainable-energy Internet discussion board, as he was looking for projects to partake in — after his graduation in global studies and anthropology. His interest in the road trip Tejas is about to embark on, is two-fold. The first being his continued portrayal of environmental issues and human endurance in his films. “Ever since my dad told my twin brother (Kevin) and me about how he drove a Volkswagen Bus from Austria to Sri Lanka (in 1975) and met our mom (a Sri Lankan) — I wanted to travel on a Eurasian journey, too. But I don’t want to pollute the planet just to fulfill my wish of
travelling and filming, so Naveen’s solar tuk tuk seemed like a great idea for my next documentary,” shares the 27-year-old. Through this film, the young Austrian anthropologist is keen on meeting people from different cultures — who are trying to do their bit of making the planet greener and create an awareness of alternative mobility solutions for passenger vehicles in Asian and European countries using renewable energy. Now, (after he recieved an e-hat tip from fellow Austrian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who read about them on Twitter) Kopacka is not just behind the camera — he’s as involved in the mission as Rabelli and doesn’t mind getting his hands greasy.
Though the duo’s journey will receive an official flag-off in Hyderabad (Telangana tourism is one of their primary sponsors), the team is taking the scenic route from Kochi to Bengaluru via Wayanad, Bandipur forest and Mysore. Upon hearing about the duo, Bengaluru-based Christopher Rodricks, one of India’s most popular vintage car enthusiasts, says, “I’m excited to hear that young millennials are adopting renewable energy sources like solar-energy to power their hybrid vehicle for such an epic road trip.” Meanwhile, Rabelli says, “Our journey from Kerala is our first real long-distance test run. Once we reach, we’ll spend at least 10 days in the city — work out the kinks in the machine, gather spare parts and fine-tune the hybrid,” adding, “During that time, we will be visiting My Eco Day, a startup that tries to introduce solar energy into the daily lives of people. We will also meet and explain what we have learnt to Selco Solar, a social
enterprise established in 1995 that provides sustainable energy solutions and services to those in rural areas. The city has been kind to us — with friends and even mechanics helping — and now it’s our turn to return the favour,” he says.
“One of the most crucial aspects of this eco-friendly journey is the availability of recharging points,” explains Rabelli. Team Tejas plans to travel approximately 100 kms each day — as their electric motor would give them a mileage of almost 70-80 km/day plus an additional 30 kms via solar power (recharge time: four hours). Though Tejas has a top speed of about 75 km/hr, they hope to average at 45 km/hr. Rabelli will take his hybrid to Iran (via ferry from Mumbai) then continue to UK via Turkey and Europe. Since Kopacka and Rabelli have an Austrian and an Australian passport (citizenship gained from working there for almost six years) respectively, they will receive visa on arrival at all 10 countries. To help with the carnet de passage (vehicular visa from Mumbai’s Western India Automobile Association), they turned to the third (silent) member of team Tejas. Sanketh Kumar, an engineer, who helped them in designing and building the prototype. “He’s the third wheel that moves this three-wheeler ahead,” laughs Kopacka. Clearly, the young environmentalists deeply believe that this little Indian-made three wheeler will make a big difference, and we can’t help but cheer them on.
Other solar challengers
Though Louis Palmer, is the first man to drive a solar powered ‘taxi’ on a journey around the world and Swiss explorers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are the founders and pilots of Solar Impulse, the first solar-airplane able to fly day and night — Indians are not far behind. Here are a few who have created solar-powered vehicles:
n In January, five students from Manipal Institute of Technology’s SolarMobil team — created Solar Electric Road Vehicle (SERve) — a `25 lakh, dual-seater, hybrid car with a 45 km/hr (average) speed and 150 km (per charge) range.
n In February, a team of final-year mechanical engineering students from Chennai’s S A Engineering College created an eco-friendly solar bike (with a five-hour charge time, it will run 35 kms) which has a 45km/hr top speed. Though its design is a bit awkward — as the solar panel is installed on top of the bike, it doesn’t affect its functionality.
Meet and greet
● Besides meeting locals and making friends via the couchsurfing site, the duo will meet luminaries from the solar sustainable energy solutions field.
● “At Bengaluru, we hope to meet the founders of Pollinate Energy, a non-profit enterprise providing sustainable energy solutions,” Rabelli says.
● In Germany, they plan to witness the world’s largest electric car race, Wave Rally. “We will also meet our hero, global environmental adventurer Louis Palmer, who has encouraged us to come meet him,” says Kopacka.
● They will interact with the Center for Social innovation in Turkey, which provides training and guidance to a younger generation working on projects that have a positive social and environmental impact. “We will also meet the Anadolu university ‘Solar Car’ racing team,” Kopacka reveals.
● Visiting solar farms in Iran is also on their agenda.
What do people listen to on a 10,000 km long journey in an auto rickshaw? While both guys are looking forward to listening to local radio from the 10 different countries — Rabelli enjoys all kinds of music including Bollywood tunes, he intends to a listen to a lot of dub. “I like the French-Jamaican sounds of Zen Zile,” he shares. Kopacka’s playlist has been prepared by his twin, Kevin, a painter and a video artiste and includes music from garage-rock artiste Mikal Cronin and Flatbush Zombies.