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Basic utility vehicle rolling ahead-slowly: Assembly would happen in developing nations

September 12, 2005

A not-for-profit group developing vehicles for use in the Third World plans to open a "micro-factory" next month near 65th Street and Binford Boulevard.

But the Institute for Affordable Transportation site won't mass-produce its diminutive vehicles, powered by lawn tractor engines. Rather, the donated space will become a lab for working out methods to help those in developing countries assemble the so-called "basic utility vehicles."

The facility "is to basically prepare the way for this technology transfer package so it can be given to small manufacturers overseas," said Director Will Austin, who founded the institute five years ago.

So far, progress has been about as slow as the BUVs' 20-mph top speed. Three years ago, Austin had hoped to have a budget of $900,000 by now; today, it's only about $200,000 and comes mostly from donations.

Rather than 100 BUVs rolling off the line each year as once planned, the institute now is building its 12th and 13th vehicles.

The University of Illinois-trained mechanical engineer acknowledges that progress has been slow, but deliberately so. Over the last three years, he and a number of engineering students have been developing what they think is the ideal prototype.

Austin and his volunteers also have been carefully studying whether there's a market for a $2,500 vehicle in countries where some don't earn that much in a whole year.

It turns out building an inexpensive vehicle isn't as easy as it sounds. For one, the basic chassis has to be adaptable for any number of possible uses, from ambulances to water trucks. The vehicles also have to withstand harsh conditions such as steep inclines, rutted roads and creek beds.

Durability takes priority over comfort. Many of the three-wheeled vehicles have floors made from pressure-treated lumber. The only thing separating drivers from the motor below is a riding mower seat.

The design has come largely through annual contests among engineering schools, including Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Cost also has been a development challenge. Austin and his team discovered that wood cargo beds, rather than metal, would be cheaper and could reduce shipping fees. It would be even less expensive if locals made the beds themselves.

"It works against all of your instincts-American instincts to make it more luxurious," he said.

Another way to reduce costs is by designing the BUV package to use chassis parts from salvage yards. And if customers in foreign countries obtain the parts themselves, it would be even cheaper.

The guts of the vehicles-the engine and gearing package-are the institute's proprietary technology and likely would come from the United States.

The institute doesn't have a sales force, but it hopes to work through missionary and medical groups that work in developing countries.

Locally based Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism bought two BUVs for projects in Honduras and Ghana.

"Transportation is always an issue in Third World countries," said Rick Wolford, FAME's executive director. "You'll see these pickup trucks that will have a seemingly impossible number of people on the back end."

Ambassadors for Children, a charitable group founded by Ambassadair Travel Club President Sally Brown, has sent a BUV to Serbia's Crown Prince Alexander, who invited her to his birthday party.

Brown wants to see the vehicles assembled in Serbia, and her gift sparked interest from the royal family.

"I fell in love with them because they are perfect for underdeveloped countries, especially in rural areas," said Brown, whose charity also wants to get vehicles to El Salvador and Guatemala.

Brown said she hopes Indiana companies will help purchase the vehicles and give them to those in need in developing countries, saying the relatively cheap price buys a lot of benefit.

Another one of those benefits might be economic development. Austin would like to see small businesses in each country take over assembly and distribution-something many governments prefer rather than receiving fully assembled imports.

"They can make simple vehicles there profitably," Austin said. "One of our ideas is to jump-start a sort of niche industry."

Another potential market is U.S. farmers.

"If that can help supplement our mission overseas, we're supportive of that," Austin said.


The institute's Will Austin drives a basic utility vehicle.
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