Tata for Now

A thought-exercise: An Indian company, Tata, has developed a super-cheap small car. Are we pleased?

Pro: The car costs less than $3000.

Con: That’s still more than 3 years pay at average Indian wages.

Pro: It’s safer than a motorcycle.

Con: It’s not much safer.

Pro: It’s got relatively low emissions- a byproduct of tiny.

Con: It’s not got the technology to keep emissions low after actual road use.

Pro: It will take up less space in a traffic jam.

Con: More people able to afford small car-> more small cars on the roads-> more traffic jams.

With dreams of being Model-T revolutionary, the Tata’s people car could do much for the new middle class in developing countries. Like, it could give them access to a car. A car engineered to the least expensive possible standard of functionality- the steering shaft is hollow, and at speeds over 45 mph, the wheel bearings wear quickly (great, so it’s a disposable car?). No worries about it being unleashed on American roads- it wouldn’t meet our safety or environmental regulations. And in a couple years, when India has environmental and car safety regulations of it’s very own, it probably won’t meet them, either. In the US, safety requirements cost generally add $2500 to the cost of making a car- about double the People’s car price.

Sure, it sounds hypocritical to wish that developing countries not develop into the same gas-quaffing, road warrioring, driving maniacs that the US already has become. Without widespread usable public transportation, most of the US isn’t left a choice. Owning a car has becomes a basic need, to work and get groceries and go anywhere. In most of the developing world, though, it remains a status symbol. I’m not bemoaning the role of efficient transportation in development- a car certainly goes faster than a donkey or a bike- I’m just saying, personal cars aren’t the most efficient method of transport, and if countries develop in a manner dependent upon them, they’ll only trap themselves in the same nasty emissions and oil-dependency cycle we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The US should try and set an example by, say, developing a viable train system, or encouraging investment in mass transit in cities- make a metro pass a status symbol. Or maybe we could go with the Cadillac flow, and make clean cars the new status symbol. Pardon me, while I covet the Provoq.

Really, though: Hey, India, we’re not a great example. Try something else.

2 Responses to “Tata for Now”

  1. 1 Kestrel January 11, 2008 at 1:32 am

    Other things to watch out for:

    Reality TV
    Double Quarter Pounder with Cheez and Extra Bacon
    Hillary Clinton

  2. 2 virescent January 13, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Tata’s put up the real name of the car and specs this week at (http://www.tatamotors.com/our_world/press_releases.php?ID=340&action=Pull). I don’t know if they’re selling it anywhere but India, but it meets “all safety regulations” (no, no word on what regulations they’re talking about, be it just Indian or some other country) and Indian and European emissions standards. More at the wiki page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tata_Nano).

    I found this editorial by Thomas Friedman on the Tata car- (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/opinion/04friedman.html). He has about the same take as I do, but I think he puts too much expectation on India to overcome the mistakes made in the US’s development, and neglects the responsibility we have to not continue being a bad role model for world development. Somebody’s got to do it, and India’s got the blanker slate- but also a larger population who need faster, much less expensive solutions, and who understandably won’t want to wait for clean technology to come of age before getting in on prosperity.

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