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.
Megesh Tiwari, a program official at Winrock International, explained: "They do not go over speed, they take care of the car, and they drive more carefully." The women created an economic boost.
One of those women, Devi Shrestha, 28, talked about it while taking a lunch break. "My life has changed dramatically after I became a SAFA Tempo driver," she said.
Shrestha said she used to earn 2,500 rupees ($25) per month for painting furniture. But as soon as she started driving electric autorickshaws in 2007, her monthly income quadrupled.
With a higher income, Shrestha was able to send her children to a better school. She also saved enough money to buy a second electric three-wheeler, which she has leased to another driver.
"So now I'm not just a driver, but also an entrepreneur," Shrestha said, smiling. She has since trained more than 10 women to be electric vehicle drivers.
According to the Nepal Electric Vehicle Association, women now take the wheel in more than 200 of the electric autorickshaws in Katmandu; the sector employs about 700 drivers. Meanwhile, Nepal's electric vehicle industry has been lobbying the government to open more routes.
It's also looking to sell electric vehicles that can run anywhere. Umesh Raj Shrestha, president of Shree Eco Visionary Pvt. Ltd., tried to make battery-powered buses for local travel agencies that promoted ecotourism. After converting his gasoline-powered car to run on electricity, Shrestha started to make such conversions for others.
The government strikes back
But then he hit a policy wall. The Nepali government banned the practice of converting fossil fuel vehicles into electric ones. It also lured Nepal's tourism industry to purchase fossil-fuel vehicles by offering a tax break for buying them, which electric vehicle buyers don't enjoy.
Another blow came in 2007: When Shrestha imported electric bicycles from China to Nepal, he found himself unable to sell the 3 million rupees' (about $30,000) worth of them.
"There was no category for e-bikes in Nepal at that time," Shrestha explained. He later successfully lobbied the government to set up a new category, but the imported e-bikes were worth almost nothing because their batteries had decayed.
"That was a very difficult time," Shrestha recalled. "But I'm still a fan of electric vehicles. This is not just a business, but a passion that I am doing something good for the environment and for my country's energy security."
Now Shrestha is planning to import auto parts from China and assemble electric minibuses in Nepal. They will be safer and perform better, he thinks, because they are four-wheeled and use new lithium-ion batteries. Currently, Nepal's electric autorickshaws carry bulky and heavy lead-acid batteries.
Blackouts and salesmanship
Meanwhile, Pramod Bhandari, a dealer of the Indian-made electric car called REVA, is trying to convince private car owners that it's more stylish and cleaner to drive one.
"Katmandu Valley is a very electric vehicle-friendly place," Bhandari said. "People here usually travel about 60 kilometers per day, while the electric vehicle can give them 100 kilometers (62 miles) per full charge."
Some buy the car for its green image, while others do it to appease their wives, who want to avoid long hours waiting in gas station lines. While the cars cost 40 percent more than gasoline-powered cars, he tells buyers they will recover the extra cost within five years.
Sales have picked up this year, but some potential buyers hesitate, worrying about Katmandu's frequent blackouts. In the winter, blackouts can last 18 hours a day. "Why should I buy an electric car when there is not enough electricity?" they ask him.
Bhandari's partner, Bardan Basnet, tells them it only takes five hours to recharge. "If you can always charge a mobile phone, how bad is the power cut? You can always charge an electric car at home or another place."
Soon he will have another selling point: Katmandu's first solar power charging station will be installed near the REVA showroom this month. As Basnet explains: "We are trying to tell our customers, 'Why do you need to rely on the government to power your car? You can make your own electricity!'"