Nano Car. Big Questions.

Jan 11, 2009
*Special to asia!

Is Ratan Tata a hero or a villain? His Tata Nano car is set to put India’s lower-middle class on wheels with its unbelievably low price, but at what cost to the environment?

Ratan was moved to build a super-cheap car by the common sight of an Indian family of four sitting on a scooter in pouring rain. “I observed families riding on two-wheelers , the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family,” Ratan said. The mortality rate of two-wheelers in India is up to four times that of cars. To give these people, the lower-middle class, a safer and more comfortable alternative, Ratan had to build a car within the reach of these people whose monthly average wage is US$200. He had to build, in other words, a vehicle with the functionalities of a car but the price of a motorbike.

All the cost savings measures for the Nano would be useless if Tata Motors were to build expensive plants to assemble them. To overcome that seemingly intractable problem, Tata Motors came up with a solution that seemed ludicrous at first: put the car together by glue, and not wielding.

Amazingly, the method works. Using super-strong aerospace glue on components designed for that purpose, the Nano can be put together cheaply and by people who do not need an advance degree in engineering. In fact, it can be put together so simply that all Tata Motors has to do is to produce complete knock-down kits of the car and ship them to various locations, where its distributors would put the car together, under the supervision of Tata officials to ensure quality – and the Nano is ready for sale. Having come up with a car that can be assembled this way, Tata Motors then filed 34 patents for the technology and innovations of this revolutionary product.

That was what Ratan presented in New Delhi when he, accompanied by electronic fireworks and the theme song of 2001: A Space Odyssey, drove what looked like an enlarged white jellybean onto the stage of the auto expo.

With the Nano, Ratan has turned the entire automobile world upside down. He has produced a car so cheap that it can be purchased by tens of millions of people, or even hundreds of millions of people, worldwide. He has provided mobility to an entire underclass, and unshackled them from the tyranny of public transport and the discomfort and danger of two-wheelers. He has, in short, done almost exactly what Henry Ford had done a century ago.

For this, he was painted a villain in the West, as a polluter of the first class, the man whose invention can render all efforts to fight global warming moot.

Looking at the Nano, Time magazine sneeringly called it an "econobox". Still it was kinder its rival Newsweek, which, in an article titled "A Billion New Tailpipes", quoted Yale environmentalist, Daniel Esty, as saying: "This car promises to be an environmental disaster of substantial proportions." The influential German weekly Der Spiegel didn’t even bother to mince its words, labelling the Nano "an environmental disaster".

In a panic, the Los Angeles Times asked: "What happens if, through a combination of its incredibly rapid economic growth and innovations like the Nano, India's car-ownership ratio hits that of the US? That would put 864 million cars on India's roads, more than 3 1/2 times the number in the US."


The New York Times, its East Coast rival, was in agreement. Condemnation of the Nano came, surprisingly, from Thomas Friedman, the NYT columnist whose book "The World Is Flat" is widely considered to be one of the influential pro-globalisation books ever written.


Friedman, which praised the Toyota Prius for its environmentally friendly design, thumbed down his nose at the Nano. This is despite the fact that the Nano actually has better fuel economy than the Prius (54 mph versus 45 mph for every 4.55 litres, though, of course, that is only one measure of the “green-ness” of a car).

The Nano, Friedman intoned, is the "cheap copy of our worst habits".

One might argue that the worst habit of the United States is its tendency to attack other countries for no apparent reason, but Friedman’s point is made. And so is that of Newsweek and others.

The point, in a nutshell, is that while the developed world can own cars, and nothing concrete is done to limit car population (on April 17 President Bush announced the US would cap emission in 2025 – i.e., no action would be taken from now for the next 17 years), the moment Ratan makes a car that the poor can afford, he becomes a bigger villain than the entire Detroit put together.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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