Take a ride on the wild side
If you’re around Jakarta’s Jalan Sudirman next month (June), fed up with air-conditioned luxury cabs and feeling adventurous, keep an eye open for a pink bemo.
Or maybe magenta. The color is still being debated, but it’s likely to be standout shrill.
Either way the driver will be Pak Kinong so you’ll be in good hands. He knows the back streets like his steering wheel because he’s been driving the noisy, smelly three-wheel rattletraps since 1970.
Except that this time he’ll be at the controls of a clean and quiet spruced-up electric machine – the Bio Bemo.
So if you’re ready to chance a ride you’ll be helping take down the capital’s appalling pollution by a few grams of carbon monoxide, which has to be all good.
So where’s the risk? Although the bemo has been mechanically checked it shouldn’t be on the road.
Law-conscious Westerners shy at riding unlicensed transport because it might void insurance policies, but that doesn’t seem to bother too many Indonesians, including Enrico Halim, the man behind the Bio Bemo
“We want the machine registered but transport laws don’t say anything about electric bemos,” he said. “So the bureaucrats have told us to go away and find a solution workable to them.
“Most technical issues have been fixed – it’s the paperwork blocking us from going forward. We’ve spoken to Jokowi (Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo) who said the idea is ‘very interesting’.” A low wattage response, but Team Bio Bemo sees a spark of support.
Enrico, 44, doesn’t fit the image of grease-stained mechanical inventor. Originally from Bandung he’s a graphic artist trained in the US who teaches part-time at Tarumanegara University. He set up an agency called Aikon, ‘an institution for the open minded pursuing the better Indonesia’.
A petrolhead he is not. He rides a (non-electric) motorbike and is more interested in making his city safe and sweet than being seen at the wheel of a black saloon from Stuttgart.
Which is why he’s pushing to convert old bemos to electric power locally rather than import glitzy modern machines – a solution favored by the big transport operators.
Bemos may have been sidelined but there are still about 500 operating from eight stations in Jakarta. “They are part of our heritage, first imported from Japan during the Soekarno era,” Enrico said. “Sadly our education doesn’t teach us to respect history.
“Bemo are efficient, able to negotiate narrow and crowded streets, to go on roads inaccessible to other vehicles. They are particularly good shifting produce to and from traditional markets.”
The two stroke engines are noisy, thirsty and dirty. So Enrico and his mates have built a pick-up using four standard batteries and a Chinese 48-volt brushless electric motor.
The orange prototype has been on the roads for almost three months. The next model, out soon, will carry passengers.
The gas engine and transmission have been removed, so the clunky gear system has also been eliminated, giving passengers a smoother ride.
It’s claimed the maximum distance is 75 kilometers on a full charge, though best to park after 50 to avoid battery damage. This is within the range of many routes, though not all. An overnight battery top up using a standard household cable should cost a few thousand rupiah.
Enrico isn’t all torque - he’s also into social engineering. “I want to put the Bio Bemo within the reach of owner–drivers,” he said. “At the moment they earn about Rp 150,000 (US$15) a day but more than half of that goes on gas and oil.
“We’ve been talking to banks and should be able to negotiate a Rp 30 million (US$3,000) loan for conversions, repaid over 30 months with the money saved.
“Half the drivers who have seen the Bio Bemo are enthusiastic. The others are worried about range and recharging time. We’re considering is a battery exchange program.”
Jaywalkers won’t be able to hear or smell the Bio Bemos so a “fun sound” from little drums on the Bio Bemo’s wheels may be added to alert the unwary.
Enrico has long been keen on alternative energy and for a while experimented with hydrogen power. His interest switched to electricity when visiting his daughter Kintaka who is studying in New Zealand. In Wellington he saw local government staff driving electric-powered cars to promote the capital’s clean and green credentials.
Using the Internet (“my mechanic is Pak Google”) he plugged into an international ring of incandescent electric vehicle enthusiasts. They included pioneers of the Philippines’ distinctive E-Jeepneys, the flamboyantly decorated electric mini-busses now becoming popular in Manila. Three experts came to Jakarta and gave advice.
Overseas aid agencies have signalled interest in the Bio Bemo (Greenpeace backed the E-Jeepney project). However Enrico is wary of getting too much support that could over-engineer the bemos, ramp costs and make the vehicles too dear for drivers.
For example, lithium batteries and fast chargers would triple the conversion cost.
“Our Filipino friends couldn’t imagine why our government isn’t supporting the project,” Enrico said. “They also noted that electricity in Jakarta is about half the cost of power in Manila.
“I hoped we might interest local universities, but there’s been no enthusiasm. It seems the Bio Bemo isn’t sexy or modern enough. Of course we’re using really old technology and looking for long-term solutions.
“Everyone seems to be depending on Jokowi and Ahok (deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) to have all the ideas and do everything.
“They are just two men. We should solve problems ourselves. The main point is this: Why doesn’t the government see this as a practical solution to some of Jakarta’s transport problems?”
Maybe it will after the Bio Bemo team heads to City Hall on 22 June in an all-out bid to turn on the public servants’ interest and maybe even get them to authorize registration.
In that case foreigners might be more willing to try a trip.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 3 June 2013)