Getting to work in South Africa can be a painful process, unless you happen to be among the wealthy few who own a car. Most people commute on overcrowded, notoriously dangerous minibus taxis that end up in around 70,000 crashes every year and kill an average of three people every day. The taxis are also responsible for ever-increasing congestion and pollution in cities like Cape Town.
One solution, at least for short commutes, might come in the form of a new electric pedicab called the Mellowcab. Designed to fill the "last mile" gap for commuters, the Mellowcab is powered both by a hydrogen fuel cell and human energy—pedaling doesn't propel the cab forward, but helps charge an electric battery. The cab also captures energy every time the driver brakes.
The designers say using electric power was an obvious choice. "Electric vehicles are very efficient, maintenance is minimal compared to traditional cars, and it has no direct emissions," says Neil Du Preez, founder of the company behind the Mellowcab. Over time, he plans to build renewably-powered charging stations for the cabs as well.
Inside the cab's recycled plastic frame, things are nothing like the typical South African taxi: Riders have plenty of room, a place to charge a mobile phone, and a tablet they can use to provide real-time feedback to the cab company about how safely the driver is maneuvering through traffic.
The rides will also be cheap, thanks to a business model that relies more on advertising than passenger fares. Large panels on each side of the cab are illuminated with LED lights, making the cab safer to use at night and providing the perfect place to display ads. Inside, the tablet also shows ads to customers based on location; driving by a particular restaurant, for example, can trigger an ad for a dinner special.
"The advertising enables us to provide transport at vastly reduced rates, and it makes the business profitable enough to scale quickly," says Du Preez.
In a day, the cab can make dozens of trips within a three-kilometer radius before recharging. The company plans to limit the Mellowcabs to specific areas, based both on what will be most useful for the city and where they're most likely to sell ad space.
Though the pedicab has been customized enough that it's no longer officially considered a bike, it isn't legal to drive on freeways, so the company will focus only on the most urban settings. "We don’t compete with normal cabs in terms of legislation and range," says Du Preez. "We focus on shorter urban routes, averaging around three miles max ride distance."
Du Preez hopes to bring the the cab to cities in the U.S. soon, after finalizing a revised version of the design with a new shell, drivetrain, and several other technological features. He aims to launch the new version within a couple of months.