Take note of today's date, because Tata officially put on sale its revolutionary Nano car earlier, and it may well change the automotive and wider-world landscape. The £1350, or '1 Lakh' vehicle has been heralded as a development to transform the lives of millions, by opening up access to personal mobility for many in the developing world who up until now have largely been denied it.
It's very easy to be critical of this. Environmentalists have, and will continue to warn that the Nano constitutes nothing more than a complete environmental disaster for the planet. However, this is somewhat rich coming from western critics who for years have taken personal urban mobility for granted. I recently discussed my views on the Nano in a Q&A follow up to the Geneva auto show, with Daniel Gray who runs MPGomatic.com. Playing devil's advocate, Daniel asked of me:
To which - I still think it's worth repeating, my answer runs as follows:
In terms of emissions, it apparently has better fuel economy than the Prius that is about to be replaced, so they’re not that far off the mark, efficiency-wise. What we need to hope and encourage to happen, is for developing country’s transport fleets, to leap-frog to future propulsion technologies such as compressed air, electric or even hydrogen, very quickly for their vehicles. The big question is whether the world can truly cope with millions of more cars. Unfortunately, that’s a question all of us need to ask. And until we find new, better, innovative ways to move about in the developed world, we’re going to struggle to impress our hopes and fears on the developing one."
Since the Geneva auto show, future-positive automotive news has been more than a little hard to come by. Instead we've done things like become obsessed with what a clanger Aston Martin dropped with its new Lagonda SUV concept. While the Lagonda and the Nano bear no direct comparison and will rarely be mentioned in the same sentence, it's worth stopping to consider them as representative of two very disparate slices of automotive thinking right now. Perhaps picking up on the flack they received right from the get-go about the Lagonda, Aston's team were quick to stress that the Lagonda was primarily pitched at developing markets (like India). Their logic appears to be that SUVs are beloved of the middle classes and oligarchs who live in such regions, often because the roads are in such poor condition - so greater ride height and four-wheel drive are a must. As presumably, is the ability to make potholes bigger, and to further erode away loosely made dirt roads, which 4x4s tend to do. Clearly, enforcing a 'them and us' societal imbalance has nothing to do with it...
I don't need to state the obvious here, but in many ways what the Lagonda embodies represents something very ugly about how certain sections of the automotive industry currently go about their business. The Nano, for all its critics, reduces the very essence of what a car is to its constituent parts. Protection from the elements, ability to carry bodies and goods at a speed faster than possible on bike or foot, while taking less human effort, and a means of directly connecting two geographically discrete locations. The Nano should merely be to the Asian sub-continent what the Mini, 500, Beetle and 2CV were to Europe last century, and the Model-T Ford was right at the beginning of it in the US too. Many will say that this makes it a bad thing. I'd caution that we should look beyond simplistic and single-viewpoint environmental assessments before jumping to that conclusion.
It may yet prove to be a vehicle the world is unable to sustain in an ecological sense, but by creating access to the fundamentals of automobility for new echelons of society, it could prove to be the most important car of this decade, maybe even the century. Somehow I suspect the Lagonda will be remembered for altogether different reasons.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 23rd March 2009
Lagonda image kindly provided by Drew Smith. Nano image: Joseph Simpson