The iconic Thailand taxi, the tuk tuk, is set to get a high-tech makeover.

Australian company Star 8 has developed a solar-powered electric tuk tuk – known as SolarTuk – which is being touted as a major step forward for ecological transport in developing nations.

Star 8 managing director Jacob Maimon came up with the idea of an electric tuk tuk following a trip to Vietnam.

“I had taken a ride in a conventional tuk tuk and when I got out I saw the driver putting only a small amount of petrol into the tank,” Maimon says. “I asked him why he didn’t fill it up and he said the cost of fuel was prohibitive and he could barely cover his daily expenses with the amount of work he picked up.

“It was then that I envisaged a solar-driven tuk tuk … which cost next to nothing to run.”

Star 8 says the tuk tuks will cost between $2000 and $3000. The integral part of the design is its flexible roof, which houses an array of mono-crystalline solar collectors to generate power for the vehicle.

The power is sent to two batteries – one for running the electric motor, and another for storage. The batteries can be used to power the tuk tuk, or as a generator for the family home, which Maimon says is almost as important as the vehicle’s green credentials.

“Importantly, the energy generated by these solar electric tuk tuks will enable many Asian families without access to adequate heating, lighting and cooking to properly cater for their families for the first time.

“Just think about it – people will be able to prepare full meals and keep warm by virtue of their solar-charged tuk tuks.”

The tuk tuks have a maximum speed of 50km/h, and can cover 120 kilometres on a charge. There will be three power outputs available, and can be recharged by plugging into a powerpoint or use the sun’s rays.

Four body styles will be built – a single roof version, a twin-roof with a sliding top panel,  another twin-roof version with a sliding panel with extendable legs, and a final version with additional flip-out collectors.

Star 8 is in the process of building a factory in Cambodia to produce the vehicles, and the company says it has already struck up discussions with parties in China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Africa and Nigeria.

According to the company, a number of tourism operators in Australia have also expressed interest in the vehicles.

Tuk tuks, or auto rickshaws as they are known in some countries, are commonly petrol-powered using the basics of a scooter. However, in recent years, governments have moved to outlaw smoggy petrol versions in favour of natural gas-propelled models which emit less carbon dioxide.