Much in the same way the Ford Model T revolutionized transportation in the United States and the Volkswagen Beetle did in Germany, the Tata Nano (small in Gujarati) seeks to do the same for India and the rest of the developing world, with millions still seeking to realize dreams of four wheel mobility. Will the Nano become a resounding success and revolutionize the concept and accessibility of the car, or will it cause increased problems and growing pains in its mission to provide transportation to the broader public?
With a price starting at $2,200 dollars including taxes and fees, the Nano significantly undercuts the current cheapest car in India by almost half and may open the door to aspiring drivers around the world as the most affordable automobile in history (when accounting for inflation). The market potential is seemingly unlimited as only 0.7% of Indians owned automobiles in 2007.
However, economic development has already caused an explosion in the number of motor vehicles perpetuating increased fatalities due to accidents, standstill traffic, and smog filled cityscapes.
Its founder, Ratan Tata says that his inspiration is derived from poignantly watching the way entire families are transported on motorcycles complete with a rider, passenger, along with two children hanging onto the back. He noted the terrible toll in road deaths involving two-wheelers and called for a safer four-wheeled vehicle that will transport families in a dignified manner.
While I have not had the opportunity to test-drive the Nano, the New York Times reported on their test drive that the Nano is hugely entertaining and “agile and fun to hustle around the test track.” Their description echoed my experience a few years ago in Western China where I had the opportunity to drive a similarly frugal Chery QQ from the historic city of Dali to Lijang. Although smaller and less powerful than I am used to, the luxury of private space, enjoyment of personal music, and effective climate control made the journey more comfortable and enjoyable than it might have been on a scooter or public bus.
The increase in the number of cars has become inevitable as incomes increase for the flourishing middle class. Supporters contend that the Nano is exceedingly fuel efficient being able to run 55 miles to the gallon making it more efficient than the ubiquitous Hindustan Ambassador and comparable to many motorcycles. The 0.6 liter engine found in the Nano is only 20% the size of an average car in the United States. It is also extremely space efficient, at ten feet long and five feet wide, the Nano surprisingly has the ability to seat five.
On the other hand, critics claim that the Nano will exacerbate existing transportation issues and may cause even more fatalities, citing congested streets, and furthering the depletion of natural resources. However, I believe that automobiles are inherently safer in collisions than motorcycles or rickshaws especially in large urban centers in which average driving speeds are low.
Tata has immense aspirations for the Nano due to the size of the market and versatility of the car. With natural gas, hybrid, and electric versions in the pipeline, the company also plans to export the cars to Europe especially in light of the global economic crisis in which efficiency and low prices become even more appealing.
With the delivery of the first Nano today, it may be the start of something quite extraordinary.
What do you think?