Nano Technology

Burning_Nano_540x324.jpg

The much-hyped and much-criticized Tata Nano, a car that will hit the Indian market retailing for a mere 100,000 rupees — the equivalent of $2,500 — got a perplexing nod of approval from the Economist newsmagazine last week:

Commuting in India’s cities can be both cosy and deadly. Children squeeze snugly between father at the handlebars of a motorcycle, and mother riding side-saddle at the back. This precarious balancing act, says Mr Tata was the "visual target" he had in mind when he first conceived of the need "to create another form of transport." About 1,800 people die on Delhi’s roads each year, perhaps one-third of them on two-wheelers. Only 5% die in cars. Tata’s project may pose risks for investors, but it promises unaccustomed safety for customers.

While we don’t have all the data needed to crunch the assumptions in that road-death statistic (what percentage are traveling in cars to begin with, for instance?), it’s hard to imagine that an influx of Tata Nanos is going to magically bring order to the streets of India. A New York Times article discussing chaotic driving habits in the country’s capital quotes a police official in New Delhi on his views:

"My concern is not with cars. My concern is with drivers," said Suvashish Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of police. "Every new car will bring new drivers who are not trained for good city driving."

In China, the other huge new market targeted by auto manufacturers, recently released statistics suggest his concern is well-placed. Road deaths there are on the rise, even as they decline in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, protesters on the site of the factory that will manufacture the new car torched the Nano in effigy (above) in protest over the company’s seizure of farmland to make way for the plant: "Until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur," said one organizer, according to the Economic Times of India, "we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there."

Photo: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images

  • “It promises unaccustomed safety for customers”

    … and unaccustomed risks for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

    If buying a car makes me safer and everyone else less safe, I will want to buy one even if the net result is to make the streets less safe overall.

    This is the same reasoning that makes Americans buy SUVs: I am less likely to be hurt in a crash (and I don’t worry that the other guy is more likely to be hurt in a crash).

  • I guess the Economist has forgotten the “fallacy of composition” which I remember from freshman macro-ec. “What is good for the individual is not necessarily best for the whole.” I subscribe to the Economist because it is excellent at collecting and presenting data. But their philosophy is simply myopic chearleading wherein their solution to market excesses is more laissez-faire. They somehow are unable to see that the auto is a heavily subsidized product, so to them it’s propagation it is just the “free market” at work. They are pathetic.

  • ddartley

    a NY Times article several weeks ago about the upcoming launch of this and other cheap cars in India and China cited figures that could be extrapolated to something like 300,000,000 new cars on the road in ten years.

    If that turns out to be an accurate prediction, then, really, what’s the use in even trying?

  • ddartley

    Okay, sorry, I knew my numbers sounded insane but still thought they were right. But once I saw my comment online, they looked so nuts I had to look up the article. The actual prediction is not as bad, but still pretty much qualifies as disastrous:

    “By 2013, CSM predicts, India’s market will expand an average of 14.5 percent a year, compared with just over 8 percent for China. CSM estimates that in 2013, the Chinese will buy 10.8 million cars, compared with 3.8 million in India, but says there is already a glut of local and foreign manufacturers in China, making India a more attractive long-term market.”

    Like, WHAT DIFFERENCE can environmentalists effect in the face of this??

  • rlb

    I hate cars as much as the next person, but I don’t think this is as negative a development as it seems.
    First off, 50 mpg is about the same as many motorcycles. So if two people decide to ride in one tata as opposed to on their own motorcycles, that’s an improvement. And nobody can deny that it’s an improvement to take a family of four off a motorcycle and put them into a car.
    Secondly, at least in Delhi, high gas prices and the ridiculous traffic (made worse by cars replacing motorcycles) will keep the expanding rail system popular.
    Third, the streets of Delhi are so ridiculously dangerous and chaotic in their current state that trading motorcycles for cars may make them safer as cars are generally more orderly.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    This product really flushes out the argument on the environmental impact. And, as usual, the peasants have it right by attaching land reform to the product. Yeah, it gets great mileage, but since it is individuated transportation in the end, it also eats space. The peasants want that space to eek out their livings. Keeping that land under cultivation and not covered with asphalt or some other impervious surface is critical to feeding the population and cleaning the air.

  • Re: this being good for families that can now afford a car. Yes, but it’s worse for those that still can’t. I’d rather be hit by the comically dangerous familial motorcycle sketched out by the writer than a Nano. Naturally, the article focuses on the increased individual safety without speaking to which way this will take the overall death toll. I predict: up, based on the assumption that most road deaths in Delhi (like in the rest of the world) involve an auto with 4+ wheels. Increasing the number of cars is only going to increase the overall fatalities, specifically among their 95% of road fatalities that are not in cars. More cars is only an improvement if a lower value is attached to poorer people’s lives.

    Re: how to stop this, the EU and non-EU countries with higher gas taxes are going to save the world. They are tired of the free ride that US exports have been getting for the past 50+ years by being made with relatively untaxed energy, which from their enlightened perspective amounts to a government subsidy. (India, with fixed gas prices, overtly subsidizes carbon emitting fuel.) Taxing imports is the way out of the stalemate that the US has created with its insistance that our rich country shall make no sacrifice unless the poorest do the same. The question for now is whether the WTO rules allow a tariff on imported goods from countries that tax carbon insufficiently:
    http://www.carbontax.org/blogarchives/2008/01/15/eu-workers-call-for-tax-on-imports-from-countries-not-tackling-climate-change/

    But in the long term (as the EU’s power grows) it will be how the WTO implements and enforces such a rule themselves. Global carbon taxing is good for everyone (even developing countries, as it sends money from private industry to public infrastructure) and the WTO must take it on as a central component of free and fair trade. (“Fair” as concerns wealthy countries outside North America; the kind of market fairness the trade org is inclined to act on.)
    http://ozelaw.blogspot.com/2006/07/do-us-greenhouse-emissions-breach.html

    As the cost of fuel increases (whether by carbon taxing or, inevitably, the looming expiration of supply) cheap autos will no longer make sense. That is almost the case already. A Nano cost 100,000 rupees to buy and goes 20 k / liter of gas, which costs 47.49 rupees a liter (currently, as far as I can tell, but a raise is expected Thursday). After 40,412 kilometers / 25,110 mi the fuel cost has equaled the purchase price. After 100,000 mi, a normal minimum lifetime for a car, you’ve spent four times as much on fuel as to buy it–and that’s at today’s fuel prices, the subsidy of which India is unable to maintain even at the present rate of consumption.

    There is just no way that Tata will be able to do as much damage as they would like.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Great rant Docttor,

    I think just the will, the mustered civic trust, to tax fuel, will drive Europe farther ahead of us than they already are. If we start today it would take us fifty years to catch up to Germany and Holland.

    We would rather fight a war, kill hundreds of thousands, than tax oil.

  • anon

    ddartley, it’s really convenient to make that comment while living in a developed country and having grown up taking cars for granted.

    a Rs100,000 car is not only going to make travel safer for thousands of Indians who currently travel three to four on a motorcycle or a scooter, but also usher in a new middle class.

    maybe India can direct its energies in developing viable mass transit once the you have taken care of all issues plaguing mass transit the US.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I have to say, I hate comments like, “you can’t understand this because you haven’t lived it.” I can’t speak for Dave, but I didn’t grow up taking cars for granted because my mother couldn’t afford to buy me one, and my father never needed one!

    The issues plaguing mass transit in the US are very simple: underfunding, and unfair competition from subsidized roads. As long as India stays away from those policies, their transit should be fine.

    It’s perfectly possible to have a middle class without cars, and in fact the cost of gas will probably keep these “middle-class” Indians from rising very far. The best way to “usher in a new middle class” is to stop telling these people that they need to own vehicles to be middle-class.

    Nothing has done more to endanger the lives of Americans on the road than the “ushering in” of a middle class defined by car ownership. Just look at the fatality figures; they’re not hard to find. But I forget, you already know it all.

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