the people’s car, the people’s nightmare

Posted on January 14, 2008

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Tata Motors’ launch this week of the Nano, a little car that can seat 5 and costs $2,500, has attracted much attention for its potential to bring mobility to the masses.

Technologically, it is significant, capitalizing on India’s plentiful labor and cheaper materials to build a car that could be affordable to people of lesser means.

Aesthetically, it is pleasing, with its cute design that’s somewhat reminiscent of Swatch’s Smart car. Its small size suggests easy handling, especially in the crowded and chaotic streets of India, and of course, breezy parking on narrow streets.

For India, the birthplace of the car, the success of the Nano could boost national pride and translate into even stronger economic growth than it is already enjoying.

The vehicle is also priced attractively enough so that a family which could previously afford only a two-wheeler, such as a motorcycle or scooter, could seriously consider going for the Nano instead.

But therein lies the rub – is it progress or regression with the Nano’s imminent introduction to the market?

As the world worries about global warming and increased greenhouse gases and tries to work on solving the issue, the Nano could throw a spanner in the works, possibly causing car ownership to balloon worldwide as its accessible price attracts those who had previously never had the means of affording a car.

Furthermore, with India’s relatively less stringent fuel emission standards, this could mean the nightmare of even more greenhouse gases produced and more pollution to deal with. Even as many parts of the world fret over future air quality and tries to promote public transport as an alternative, is that endeavor doomed to fail as the Nano’s success condemns the efforts of reversing the damage done to the earth?

With more cars, imagine also the strain on the infrastructure of developing countries, which are primarily the Nano’s target markets. Existing roads, usually in poor condition with maintenance virtually non-existent, are already laboring to keep up with the present number of vehicles. I do not wish upon already frazzled motorists more traffic and congestion as too few roads and infrastructure fail to keep up with more cars in circulation. Traffic is already notoriously bad in places like Bangkok, Beijing, Mexico City and New Delhi. How much worse might it get if more cars were on the road as they get cheaper?

Safety is yet another dimension that could easily be compromised with a surge in the car population. Developing countries are often quite lax on the criteria for getting a driver’s license – if it is even strictly necessary. In Mexico City for instance, one only has to be 18 and above and have the fees ready to pay for the license, with nary a driving test in sight. The New York Times reports that in India, standards are similarly loose, with a license easily procured as long as one could afford it. More worryingly, the Nano reportedly falls short of US safety standards.

How about the price of oil? $100 per barrel is already upon us. How much more is gas going to cost in the longer term as demand for it becomes even more insatiable? And what consequences will that have on geopolitics, especially in the Middle East?

Like it or, Tata is pushing ahead with the Nano and it is likely to be successful, given that cars are status symbols in many countries. Which probably means that all the emission cuts that have been envisioned or agreed upon is likely to disappear into thin air.

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