For a whirlwind visit of less than 24 hours, the Solar Tuk Expedition chugged into Byron last week at a top speed of 50kph, en route from Melbourne to Cairns. Operated by a team of young engineers from various disciplines and headed by electrical and telecommunications engineer, Julian O’Shea, their mission was to “promote sustainable transport and a low-carbon future.”

Early in 2018 on a visit to a Tuk Tuk factory in Thailand, Julian snapped up a second-hand tuk tuk for $10,000, and later, a second-hand lithium ion Tesla battery for around $5,000. Back in Melbourne, a group of 11 engineering students from RMIT was enlisted to re-engineer those components into a three-wheeled, photovoltaic solar-powered electric vehicle with a range of more than 300km per charge. And, with the help of education professionals and Arup renewable engineer Jack Clarke, so it happened, picking up the RMIT student engineering Best Engineering Project 2018 award on the way.

Julian and Jack described the project as “a way to highlight the impact of GHG emissions from transport, a sector that has largely flown under the radar in Australian media and politics compared to electricity. As the third largest (and growing) source of emissions in Australia, we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. Transitioning to an electric transport system powered by renewable energy sources is a critical part of Australia reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and we hope the SolarTuk Expedition will help inspire our businesses, communities and government to start making the change.”

The 3,000+ km, three-week trip has turned out to be one long test drive. It proved wiser to avoid the M1, rather than deal with B-doubles and semi-trailers disgruntled at finding themselves behind such a slow vehicle, so their choice was most frequently “the road less travelled”. Along the way, they have encountered “a great deal of generosity of spirit”, for instance when unexpectedly the tuk tuk ran out of charge on a back road, or during a filmed interview with ABC TV.

“There’s something wonderfully weird about the solar tuk tuk that people can’t help but smile and laugh when it passes by”, added environmental engineer Hannah Sharp. Horns honk. Lights flash. People give the thumbs up sign as they pass. “People are both curious and happy to see us pass by.”

During their Byron visit, billed by their Zero Emissions Byron hosts as The Great Solar Tour de Byron, first stop was a ‘show and tell’ at Byron High School, where 150 curious year 9 students heard all about the evolution of the solar tuk tuk, and learned, too, that engineering careers don’t have to be dull. The Tour also took them to Main Beach, Habitat, and McLeods Lookout before a Bangalow barbecue finale.

Next year, the plan is to take the tuk tuk for a further 30,000km 9-month tour of South-East Asia to tangibly illustrate that tuk tuks, or auto rickshaws, don’t need to be diesel guzzling, fume generating, dirty and noisy, but could easily become the vehicle of choice for a sustainable transport future.