The United States helped create the jeepney—the Philippines’ distinctive public-transport vehicles, modified from surplus US army jeeps—and now president Obama is touting their demise. In Manila this week for a stop on his Asian tour, Obama climbed aboard a Comet, a new electronic vehicle designed to replace the 55,000 jeepneys currently clogging roads and spouting diesel exhaust in the chronically traffic- and pollution-ridden city.
The Comet was designed by Vancouver, Washington-based Pangea Motors and is distributed by a US-Filipino company called Global Electric Transportation (GET). The Comet’s backers expect to have 3,000 to 4,000 of the next-generation jeepneys on the road by the end of the year, some of which will be manufactured in the Philippines. Pasang Masda, an association of Filipino jeepney drivers, has agreed to buy 10,000 over the next three years.
Electric vehicles for public transport haven’t received as much attention as personal vehicles made by companies like Tesla, but in many ways they’re an easier sell. Because public transport vehicles are heavily used—as opposed to a personal vehicle that might only be driven for an hour or two a day—the additional costs are more quickly be offset by savings on fuel. Public transport companies are also able to install their own network of charging stations, optimized for the established routes that their vehicles follow.
GET plans to create a series of stations along existing jeepney routes, allowing drivers to top-up their charge while passengers load and unload; a full charge takes about five hours, good for a range of about 80-100 kilometers (50-62 miles). Fares on the electric jeepneys will be unchanged from the current minimum of 8 Philippine pesos ($0.18). The vehicles’ top speed is capped at 60 kph (37 mph), which shouldn’t be much of a constraint given Manila’s notoriously gridlocked traffic.
But what about the famously colorful, ornate designs that turn just about every jeepney into a unique (albeit pollution-emitting) work of art? The Comet that Obama saw this week resembles a super-sized golf cart, but a GET executive told the Philippine TV channel 24 Oras that drivers would be free to customize their vehicles. “We did not want to lose the spirit of the Filipino jeepney,” he said.