Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Tata Nano

A new "people's car," for a new era. India's Tata Motors unveiled the world's "cheapest car." From the NYT's automotive blog:

Over the past year, Tata has been building hype for a car that would cost a mere 100,000 rupees (roughly $2,500) and bring automotive transportation to the mainstream Indian population. It has been nicknamed the “People’s Car.” Over the course of the New Delhi Auto Expo, which began this week, anticipation had grown to fever pitch.

With the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Motors drove the small white bubble car onto Tata’s show stage, where it joined two others.

“They are not concept cars, they are not prototypes,” Mr. Tata announced when he got out of the car. “They are the production cars that will roll out of the Singur plant later this year.”

The four-door Nano is a little over 10 feet long and nearly 5 feet wide. It is powered by a 623cc two-cylinder engine at the back of the car. With 33 horsepower, the Nano is capable of 65 miles an hour. Its four small wheels are at the absolute corners of the car to improve handling. There is a small trunk, big enough for a duffel bag.

“Today, we indeed have a People’s Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions,” Mr. Tata added. “We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.
What is exciting about this? First, that an Indian company (albeit a massive conglomerate) has developed a solution for the needs of the Indian market, in terms of cost, features, and fit to the physically crowded Indian urban landscape. Second, the opportunity for increased mobility that this provides the expanding middle class in India. The introduction of the automobile to the middle class fundamentally changed American culture. What will be the impact in India? Third, the commitment (if Tata's claims are true) to building a vehicle which takes environmental and basic safety concerns into consideration, not just cost:
"the 33hp engine meets current Euro 4 emissions standards and is cleaner than most of the scooters running around on Indian streets right now.” They also claim that the Nano can achieve 54 mpg (U.S.) and has passed frontal and side impact tests"
What is worrying about this? I make the assumption that, with or without this vehicle, there would be an explosion of personal-use vehicles by the rapidly expanding (in number and wealth) middle class in India. Still, the prospect of another million vehicles on the Indian roadways is deeply concerning -- for the local environment, in terms of smog and congestion, for the global environment, in terms of climate change and other atmospheric emissions, for public safety, of both the drivers of these tiny little death traps, and the massive number of Indian urbanites who use other means of transportation (pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles) on Indian city streets, and to the political will that Indian governments will have to building public transportation infrastructure at the expense of more roads, widened roads, and highways. Perhaps not quite the head-on collision of anti-poverty versus environment that Slate suggests, but some interesting dilemmas will arrive if the Tata Nano takes off. And I bet it will.

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