Tata Nano and the new car owning population in Asia

India’s population is not only growing but prospering. The Indian economy is booming, and jobs are better paid than they ever where, and there are better paid jobs than ever. In these circumstances it is not surprising that more Indians can afford cars and that one Indian car manufacturer, Tata Motors, will be introducing a very cheap car for the mass and popular marker, which they have called “the Nano”.  

The car will reach the market in three years time, when it is expected to be sold for $2,000, or just over £1,000. The makers expect to reach these costs by using less metal and more plastic on the car (avoiding expensive welding and gluing the plastic together instead), and by selling direct to the public, eliminating the dealer’s margins.

The car will have a small engine and fuel efficient, providing over 50 miles per gallon, it is expected, with a two-cylinder 623cc petrol engine and an electronic engine management system.  The fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon is roughly the same as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, which are both much larger cars with hybrid engines. I guess that the average new car in Britain operates at over 30 miles a gallon. 

Tata already make a car that they sell for about three times the cost of the Nano, but the Nano will be priced at levels which will enable millions of families in India to buy cars for the first time. Although this vehicle it is claimed will pollute less than the two and three wheelers being made in India at present there is no doubt that the prospect of hundreds of millions more of Asians owning and driving cars, such ownership now being affordable, will have an impact on climate change and on oil prices. 

We should not be surprised about a car being sold in India for around £1,000. The market knows that there is a demand for such cars and Mr Tata’s company is simply logically trying to fill the demand. No doubt we shall see similar developments in China and in other parts of Asia as prosperity increases. 

There are reports of environmentalists being “dismayed” and “horrified” at the prospect of hundreds of millions more cars on the roads of the planet. Of course, in developed nations we have been driving cars in millions for fifty or more years, and for most of that time the cars we drove were highly polluting, emitting not only carbon dioxide but also carbon monoxide and lead and particulates into the atmosphere.

We have in many western countries not just the one car family (to which Indians presently aspire) but two and three car families. If you project Asian prosperity and assume, quite reasonably that they will want to live like we live when they become as wealthy as we are you end up with some frightening projects of emissions and pollution. But none of this should be surprising in any way. 

This is the heart of the problem with climate change it lies in the hands of the devloping world. Of course, if the half a billion people in the developed world all agreed to limit the size of their car engines to 632cc and to only manufacture highly fuel efficient cars we might be able to criticise the developing world.  

The Tata Nano is still three years away from being available to buy. I wonder what proportion of the developed world’s cars will have small engines doing more than 50 miles per gallon will be in the developed world in three years time. This is an area where we can make a difference.

I do not think that being able to run a car that uses huge amounts of petrol or that is designed to travel from zero to fifty in six seconds, or has a top speed vastly in excess of the lawful speed limit is a matter of right or choice, except in so far as it is everyone’s right not to be poisoned. 

 It is therefore important that we continue not only improving fuel efficiency in cars but also start a process of limiting their size, the size of their engines and the pollution they create, so at least when we see the Tata Nano selling in millions, we will can reduce some of the carbon emissions that India will create by our own behaviour in the developed world.