While the North American International Auto Show in Detroit usually splashes the first big auto news in the new year, the lesson of 2008 may be: all eyes on India. The 9th Auto Expo in New Delhi draws attention one week ahead of NAIAS due to the unveiling of the cheapest car of all time, an undertaking many scoffed at when Tata first mooted the concept several years ago. How will a car everyone can afford, which is kept cheap partly at the expense of pollution control technologies standard in many countries, affect the environment? Is there an alternative? And whatever happened to the air-powered car?The Rs. 1 Lakh car ($3000 car) promised as the Tata People's Car will appear at the Indian Auto Expo. Currently Indians average only 8 autos for every 1000 people; in New Delhi, center of the booming Indian auto industry, every 12th Delhiite owns an auto. Could the Tata 1 Lakh car put an "auto in every garage" in this nation of over a billion people? Reactions vary on the impact which the Indian auto market will have on the environment and economy globally. (See for example: ZOOM author Vaitheeswaran, Thomas Friedman.) However, one thing remains clear: an auto that shortcuts pollution prevention is not the answer.
The emergence of electric vehicle technology in the cycle market is promising, with the merger of Hero Cycles and Ultra Motors in the forefront of interesting developments. The Hero-Ultra Velociti (pictured) is a pepped up scooter, but trades range for speed. The Optima will have a range of 70km (43 miles), compared with the Velociti's 50km (31 miles); Ultra is aiming to extend this to 100km. Top speed is still a modest 40 km per hour (25mph). Ultra Motors won a 2007 Red Herring Award as a company which will "lead the next wave of disruption and innovation."
A flash-in-the-pan in summer 2007 raised the prospect that Tata was ready to go into production on the mini-c.a.t. compressed air technology vehicle (pictured at top). A few minutes to "fuel" the vehicle with a tankfull of air at 4350 PSI or four hours to compress the air using on-board compressors powered electrically should drive the car up to 125 miles (200 km) at up to 68 mph (109 km per hour). 6000 of the vehicles developed by ex-Formula One engineer Guy Nègre for Luxembourg-based MDI are supposed to be on the street in India in 2008...but there is no hint of news in the pages of Tata's website. Mini-c.a.t. where are you?