Denver may still be catching up to its East Coast peers when it comes to public transportation, but it does have one claim to fame. It is home to the first all-electric tuk-tuk service in the country.
Resembling a souped-up golf cart, the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws—commonly called tuk-tuks in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—will take visitors anywhere around downtown Denver for a flat rate of $3.00.
Walid Mourtada, president and CEO of eTuk Denver, said the novel rickshaws fill a “micro-transit” gap for travelers—whether it’s from the Denver Union Station light rail hub to work, or for a couple-block walk from a bar to a Car2Go or Uber.
“We think of ourselves as a part of the solution,” Mourtada said. “We’re the bridge between the long walk and the short taxi or Uber ride.”
The idea for eTuk Denver stemmed from Mourtada and two friends traveling to see the San Pedro Volcano in Panajachel, Guatemala, in 2013. It was there that Mourtada and his now-partners Michael Fox and Colin Sommer fell in love with the motorized vehicles.
Little did they know they were entering uncharted legal territory with tuk-tuks.
It took two years to figure out how to design the vehicle and adapt it for Western users and to U.S. standards.
“Putting six Americans in one of the Asian vehicles wouldn’t work,” he said.
He added that the group wanted a greener design that was all-electric rather than the typical gasoline or diesel-fueled tuk-tuks common in other countries.
Those specifications led the trio to visit the Tuk Tuk Factory in Amsterdam, where after several months of research and relationship building, they were able to negotiate an exclusive U.S. manufacturer and distributor licensing agreement that allows the company to manufacture and sell an electric version of the vehicle in the U.S.
“We never thought we’d be a manufacturer, but we could not find a viable product,” Mourtada said.
In March of 2015, the company became road-legal, with the first commercial vehicle sold to Boulder, CO-based Bhakti Chai (pictured above). The popular chai brand has since named its tuk-tuk “Ginger,” and embarked with it on a 20-city U.S. tour.
“It captures attention, which is perfect for marketing campaigns,” Mourtada said.
ETuk’s manufacturing company, eTuk USA, today sells passenger and commercial vehicles to individuals, businesses and cities all over the country. Base vehicle pricing starts at $15,950 and can go up to $25,000, depending on the features.
“We have over 700 leads from around the country, and we’ve sold and delivered 25 vehicles,” Mourtada said.
All of the eTuk brands are privately funded by the co-owners.
“Only this year we are profitable because we couldn’t sell anything before,” Mourtada said.
The company made its biggest deal in September with a sale to an Arizona customer who ordered 20 vehicles for delivery over the next three years.
Because it’s not every day that the U.S. Department of Transportation is presented with a new motor vehicle, the partners worked closely with the department’s chief of staff to classify the tuk-tuk as a three-wheel motorcycle.
The designation proved a hassle in Colorado, a state that requires all motorcycle passengers to wear eye protection and anyone under 18 to also wear a helmet.
“That didn’t last long,” Mourtada said. The legislature passed a bill in the 2015 session exempting low-speed, short-distance vehicles such as tuk-tuks from the provisions.
The company is still working out the kinks for its latest product, eTuk Ride, an app that connects riders to eTuk drivers. It also develops and licenses intellectual property that can be used on a national level.
Mourtada said eTuk is not looking to launch another service-oriented business such as eTuk Denver—which is also a customer of eTuk USA—but will offer its customers nationwide all of the tools and resources they need to get tuk-tuks going in their own cities.
“We think the transportation business is a local niche,” Mourtada said. “I wouldn’t have the first clue what the transportation needs are in southern Florida, for example. The best way to grow this is through partnerships with local companies and partnerships with different cities.”
Mourtada said that means not only selling vehicles to customers, but also giving them the technology and know-how to operate them smoothly wherever they are based.
“On our side, we no longer become a one-time sale company,” he said.