The Tata Nano Released at Last: Blessing or Curse?
The Tata Nano creates buzz in India and around the world. Flickr photo by code_martial.

The Tata Nano creates buzz in India and around the world. Flickr photo by code_martial.

India experienced an automotive breakthrough last week: the release of the Tata Nano, the most economic vehicle in the Indian market, and arguably, in the world.

The so-called “people’s car” has received praise from many sources, such as The Economist:

Despite the Nano’s size (it is a bit over ten feet, or three metres long) its interior is surprisingly spacious. This is no accident. The car is the pet project of Ratan Tata, the Tata group’s revered chairman, who is over six feet tall. Accordingly, the Nano is optimised for the 95th percentile of American men. In South Asia, this makes the car downright cavernous. When it comes to performance, the Nano goes from zero to 100kph (60mph) in a languid 30 seconds, but it is surprisingly enjoyable to drive. And with a petrol consumption of 67mpg, few cars can match its fuel-efficiency.


And the San Francisco Chronicle:

Don’t dismiss the Nano as a small, poor man’s car that will cause a mere ripple on the world market. The Nano is a radical innovation, with the potential to revolutionize automobile manufacturing and distribution.

The tiny Nano incorporates three innovations, which together make it huge. First, the Nano uses a modular design that enables a knowledgeable mechanic to assemble the car in a workshop. Thus, Tata can outsource assembly to independent workshops that can then assemble the car on buyers’ orders. This innovation not only removes costly labor from the manufacturer’s side but also allows for distributed entrepreneurship on the dealer’s side.

Second, the low cost of the Nano comes from a combination of its no-frills design and its use of numerous lighter components, from simple door handles and bulbs to the transmission and engine parts. The lighter vehicle enables a more energy-efficient engine that gets 67 miles to the gallon.

From the perspective of the automotive industry, the release of the Tata Nano is remarkable indeed — a success of Indian ingenuity and, hopefully, a business hit.

The Nano, and vehicles like it, will help in reducing energy consumption in India and decreasing local and global emissions, compared to the “business as usual” scenario, due to the car’s high efficiency. Cars like the Nano will also improve the quality of life for those able to afford it. (It is important to note that the privileged few who can afford the Nano still comprise a minority in India and the rest of the developing world.)

But the Nano is not enough to solve mobility and urban development problems of cities in a sustainable way. Much more is needed.

The problem is that more cars — no matter their size or propulsion — bring more congestion, accidents, sprawl, and, if they rely on fossil fuels, more local and global pollution.

Cities should aspire to a sustainable future that is not necessarily dependent on cars (and the highways and parking spaces that come along with them.) This argument is very well expressed by organizations like India’s Center for Science and the Enviroment, which recently issued a press release that says they are “against all cars, and not just the Nano. Our cities don’t need more cars; they need better public transport.”

Cities can be more successful and livable if they pursue some of the following types of strategies:

  • “active transport” (i.e. bicycling, walking)
  • mixed-use and denser development with better public spaces
  • integrated mass transit
  • innovative infrastructure and manufacturing that includes nice ideas like the Nano
  • car-use demand management, for example:
  • downtown parking and driving restrictions
  • congestion and pollution charges
  • equitable taxes that cover externalities of these restrictions, not the subsidies in fuel

I recommend implementing the above strategies as a baseline response, even if the individual Nano car releases less emissions than the two-stroke motorcycle or the heavy vehicles used in the U.S.

Supporting better vehicles is not enough — and is even wrong — for society, as a whole.

For related blog posts on The City Fix:

From Dr. Lee Schipper:
Not Everyone Can Have A Car if We Still Want A Planet — Unless We Change

From Dr. Dario Hidalgo:
The Tata Nano – Transport Revolution or More of the Same?

See below for a presentation of different scenarios on energy and the environment in India, by Dr. Schipper:

Notice this slide, in particular, which shows that “efficiency” modes of transport, such as the Nano, are indeed projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, compared to “business-as-usual (BAU)” scenarios, but much more can still be achieved through clean two- and three-wheelers (TWW), sustainable urban transport (SUT), and extra efforts to increase energy efficiency.

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  • http://twitter.com/siyathomas88 Siya thomas

    Tata Nano is the great creation by Tata makers. It is a World’s chepest car and can be classified as a smart car due to its compact and clever design. It is a fuel efficient car and because of its size its running off smoothly from traffic. What else we need in our ideal family car. Tata Nano proves that Tata motors have always been making such cars which meets the requirements of Indian consumers.

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  • ann graham

    I know this is a web site devoted to the discussion of urban transport issues, but with respect to the Nano if you leave out the rural perspective we are missing a lot.

    Although people who live in India’s cities who already own cars will buy the Nano, they are not the primary market. The intended market are the majority people in India who live in rural areas who have never been able to own a four wheel mode of transport before because they could not afford any that are offered. Mr. Tata commented in frustration in an interview on Tata.com in 2006… We are not really talking about how it will change the way people live or transport themselves, what their aspirations may be.”

    For the economy at large in India, and particularly for the rural population that is dominant in India, ( and will be for awhile even with urbanization trends), the Nano
    is a life changing opportunity for people in the rural economy. If the roads can be improved, it will increase their mobility in ways that will given them economic mobility that will greatly improve their quality of lifes. In particular, empowerment and liberation of women in smaller towns.

    I don’t disagree that cars cause terrible congestion, pollution,etc in the cities, and that cost effective public transport options are needed. But the Nano is needed too, and it is not just another car.

    The central and state governments are trying to the extent the politics allows to improve the road network and connectivity. Having recently traveled on many of these roads outside the smaller metro areas in multiple parts of the country, they are making progress. Without better rural roads the Nano vision of safer more affordable transport to first time car buyers can’t happen What is also required is an efficient and cost-effective option in public transport for rural and urban areas.

  • Dario Hidalgo

    Chris brings very good points to this discussion. I just want to emphasize that the US Model for urban development, which heavily relies in individual motor vehicles to support low density housing and isolated corporate enclaves and shopping malls, is not sustainable. US has a difficult task of turning the model around, and has already started with good initiatives in the mayor metropolis to create dense, mix-use, transit and active transport oriented clusters (with the clear lead of New York City, see http://www.embarq.org/en/news/09/01/27/new-york-city-wins-sustainable-transport-award). The impacts of such policies are huge: more compact cities with better transit reduce energy comsumption and green house gas emissions (see http://www.apta.com/research/info/online/land_use.cfm).
    Developing cities cand grow in a much more sustainable way than US cities, if they keep more balanced approaches. This is more effective and less costly than correcting afterwards. Cities can focus on the local needs to improve accesibility, mobility, and reduce accidents and local pollution, while reducing energy consumption and green house gas emissions. Mexico, Guadalajara, Curitiba, Bogota, Seoul, Jakarta, Guayaquil, Quito, Ahmedabad, Sao Paulo and many other places are showing us that it is possible. We need to keep trying (yes we can).

  • http://gmail ravi

    the car is the topic of discussion now a days.will the people of high status ,for whome a car is a status symbol,rather then a vehicle,will they be happy with this car …

  • http://www.wri.org Chris Ganson

    The introduction of the Nano brings urgency to the overarching question: if the Nano succeeds in permeating the transportation system in developing countries, will it still be possible for the world to meet its GHG targets?

    To answer that question accurately, we’d need to look at the big picture. We would need to consider all the emissions induced by automobile use, including vehicle manufacture, roadway construction, petroleum refining, etc. Here in the US for example, these life cycle emissions add a full 60% on top of tailpipe emissions (see http://sustainable-transportation.com/ for details).

    But we can’t stop there—we’d need to project how automobile permeation will influence the development of cities, and what it will do to the development of other transportation modes. Automobiles take up an enormous amount of space to park and drive, which spreads cities out, making more people need automobiles. They consume a huge amount of shared right-of-way space relative to the number of people moved–buses, street cars, and anything else that uses the road gets stuck in the car traffic taking and are no longer able to get people around the city efficiently. Cyclists and and pedestrians get muscled out of the way. Pressure grows to build more roads and/or more lanes, which generally makes streets and neighborhoods uglier, more dangerous and more disjointed for everyone not in an automobile, so yet more get cars and use them to get around. These multiple feedbacks sum to an upward spiral that makes the city less safe, noisier, more polluted, and of course emit more greenhouse gases. In order to estimate the greenhouse gas effects, a life cycle analysis would need to be applied to these feedbacks as well.

    Beyond the GHG implications, the safety issue is substantial in its own right. Half a million people are killed worldwide in traffic collisions each year, and many more seriously injured. Even here in the safety-conscious US, over 40,000 people die each year in collisions, the leading cause of death for people aged 1 to 35. And those deaths have been shown to be driven by VMT—-note that the recent VMT dip driven by high gas prices saved lives at a rate of 3000+ annually. Meanwhile, in developing countries, the vast majority of collision deaths/injuries are to people not inside cars–quite literally the rich are running over the poor.

    It has been suggested that switching to cars, by putting a metal box around passengers, will improve safety–it may improve safety for those in the cars, but it must be accounted for that everyone outside the box will be less safe.

    In part because of these feedbacks and considering full accounting for induced emissions, it’s hard for me to imagine widespread adoption of the automobile by the developing world can be achieved simultaneously with anything close to our global targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. A serious analysis would certainly be worth doing before Nanos fill the streets.

    Finally, what about the argument that we shouldn’t deny people what we (Americans) already have? The fact is, cities can transport their people better, more cheaply, cleaner and more safely by other modes, and be much more beautiful, livable, and healthy for it. And in any case, the equity argument is moot if, in fulfilling the dream of auto-mobility for all, our greenhouse gases drive the earth off a cliff.