A solar-powered, three-wheel ambulance may look like a crude oddity to those of us who are fixated on whether a Tesla Model S P100D with Ridiculous Mode is faster than a Lucid Air or a Faraday Future FF91. But in the final analysis, all those cars miss the point of electric vehicles. They are not some baubles for well heeled drivers to wear like an ornament on their charm bracelet. Rather they are the power humanity needs to cleanse the atmosphere of fossil fuel effluent. They are the promise of better health and longer lives. And in certain circumstances, they can mean the difference between life and death when a medical emergency arises.
In Bangladesh, many people die because there is no way to get them to a hospital when necessary. The roads are rudimentary and often impassable to conventional transportation. Zahidul Islam, a farmer in Saturia in the Manikgonj district, says when his first child was born, his wife had a difficult delivery and was taken to the nearby clinic in a hand-pulled rickshaw. The trip took too long and his wife died on the way. “If I had taken her to hospital a little earlier, she would have had fewer complications,” he says. But larger vehicles could not reach his home.
The government, the local university, and a local manufacturer think they may have the answer — a three-wheeled van built on a rickshaw chassis that is as well equipped as most local ambulances. It has a small battery and electric motor to help propel it. The battery is charged by solar power in 3 to 4 hours. In many areas of Bangladesh, there is no electrical grid, so solar power is the only option available. Kamal Hossain has tested a prototype of the ambulance and says it is safe and comfortable to drive on both smooth and rough surfaces. He also says it moves along at a good speed — certainly faster than a rickshaw.
The project’s leader is Abdul Malek Azad, a professor at BRAC University in Dhaka. He says most rural community health clinics cannot afford conventional ambulance services. “I thought a low-cost ambulance service would be a good idea for these rural clinics. And by using solar power we can reduce operational costs and save the environment,” he says. The solar-powered ambulance is expected to cost no more than $2,500 — less than one tenth that of a conventional ambulance in Bangladesh.
The inspiration for the solar ambulance came from watching the races for solar-powered cars that take place regularly in Australia. “I thought if researchers can develop a solar racing car, there is potential to develop a solar ambulance,” he says. The new ambulance can accommodate three people. It has a maximum speed of 9–12 mph and a range of up to 30 miles.
It has four 100 watt solar panels on the roof that power the motor during the day and also charge four conventional 12 volt lead-acid batteries for nighttime use. “The last layer of the development includes installation of a battery charging station (at a hospital or other site close by) that is completely fuelled by a solar canopy,” Azad said. “This step is taken to ensure complete independence of these electrically assisted rickshaws from the national grid.”
So far, Azad said his team has built and tested five prototypes. He expects the solar ambulances to go into production later this year. Officials of the BRAC Health and Nutrition Program have assured the team they will consider using the vehicles in their clinics. Dr. Shahana Nazneen of the BRAC Health and Nutrition Population Programme said that the vehicles are cost-effective and should be affordable for rural hospitals.
BRAC University’s Control and Applications Research Center is running the project in association with vehicle manufacturer Beevatech. Financing comes from the World Bank through Bangladesh’s Infrastructure Development Company Limited, with seed funding from the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Now let me slip out of my role as mild-mannered reporter for a moment and assume my alternate identity as wild-eyed activist. Instead of building a $20 billion wall along the Mexican border, why not take some of that money and use it to buy solar-powered ambulances for the people of Bangladesh and other developing countries where getting medical care in an emergency is not as easy as dialing 911?
We could even paint a little message on the side: “Donated by the citizens of the United States of America.” That could create some good will for our country instead of the fear and loathing that dropping bombs on people tends to create. A radical idea, I know. But is that any reason not to do it?
Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights.