RIP Nano, the little car that couldn’t

burning nano
© STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images/ Burning Nano in effigy

Tata kills the world’s cheapest car that nobody wanted.

Other than Teslas, TreeHugger has devoted more space to the Tata Nano than any other car. When it launched in 2008 we thought it was the sign of the apocalypse. At the time I joked about this photo: “No, they are not environmentalists burning the new Tata Nano in effigy, they are protesting the eviction of farmers to build the factory.” But it might as well have been environmentalists, worried about a car so cheap that the roads would be filled with them, a sort of Indian Model T or Volkswagen Beetle. That was Ratan Tata’s dream:

I observed families riding on two-wheelers - the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family. Tata Motors' engineers and designers gave their all for about four years to realise this goal. Today, we indeed have a People's Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions.

The first nano© FP PHOTO/ Sam PANTHAKY/ The first Nano

I worried about its implications in 2008.

Low emissions are great. But multiply them by millions and one has a problem. It is the eternal problem, Indians are as entitled to drive as we are in the developed world and who are we to criticize when we have our cars? Except our cars plus their cars will kill us all and if we won't give them up we have no right to complain. Henry Ford unleashed a revolution that changed our world and gave us mobility, but at what price? Now we get to watch the rerun.

Daniel Kessler worried:

Another troubling aspect for a world confronting global climate change is the Nano's carbon footprint. What will it mean for global emissions and a heating planet if over a billion Indians now have access to incredibly cheap, personal transportation? The Nano does get 50 miles per gallon, but experts warn that the sheer volume of new cars will take away any of its efficiency gains.

Nano on fire© STR/AFP/Getty Images; "The car draped with a ceremonial garland of marigolds, burst into flames as it was being driven home from a city showroom."

But in fact, the Nano never did catch on, and according to Bloomberg, it is now dead. They are blunt: “While consumers may be value-conscious, cutting costs to the bone in pursuit of a gimmicky claim to fame is no use if the end result is a second-rate vehicle with a tendency to catch fire.”

That is unfair; it actually was an impressive bit of engineering, the same kind of design thinking that went into the Beetle. Smaller tires used less rubber and only three lug nuts instead of four, every component was designed to be cheaper and easier to put together. The company got 35 patents on its innovations. It was all about “frugal innovation”, a term we love here at TreeHugger.

The problem is that it was, in fact, too cheap. Mahendra Ramsinghani wrote in 2011 in the MIT Technology Review that it was already a bust:

[Buyers] just didn’t like the idea of purchasing the world’s cheapest car. In a country where incomes have doubled in the past five years, the Nano is seen as a glorified version of a tuk-tuk, the three-wheeled motorized rickshaw often seen on the streets of developing nations. Many consumers stretched their budgets to buy the Maruti-Suzuki Alto, which has a bigger 800cc engine.

Today, Bloomberg is pretty much confirming that opinion, suggesting that the car was misconceived. They say Tata is considering a relaunch as an electric car, given the government’s push for electric cars, and conclude “that’s misguided. Ultimately, the barrier to electric cars is high costs, making the technology unsuitable for an ultra-low-price brand.”

Building nano© SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images/ Building the Nano

I think that’s misguided. The Nano was light and small and had a top speed of 43 MPH; that makes it easy and cheap to electrify compared to a full-sized car. But it raises the same questions we had about the original Nano, and our April Streeter gets the last word from her prescient post in 2009:

Eventually, Indian and Chinese car owners will likely have to learn the lesson we're all learning, that city mobility, at least, would be better served by bike sharing, car sharing, and fabulous public transport than millions more cars on the streets.

RIP Nano, the little car that couldn’t
Tata kills the world’s cheapest car that nobody wanted.

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