I lived in India during the height of the guru-happy 1960s (The Beatles were just down the road) and the experience was enlightening in more ways than one. One mantra I learned at the time was, "Do not buy an Indian car...Do not buy an Indian car."
The Ambassador: huffing and puffing on Indian roads.
Our family owned a two-tone Hindustan Ambassador complete with sunshade, a copiously polluting exhaust pipe and a three-on-the-tree shifter that kept falling off. The Ambassador (a slightly modernized version of which is still being sold to nostalgic British consumers), was based on the 1958 Morris Oxford. It creaked and groaned and broke down from New Delhi to Calcutta. But it was pretty much the only car available. Like Cuba with its aging, befinned American relics, India was a time that automotive progress forgot.
But that was then. Today, India is making headlines with its $2,500 Tata Nano, a vehicle so stripped to basics it makes my father's Plymouth Belvedere with dog-dish hubcaps, an AM radio and rubber floor mats, look like a Lexus.
Tata's Nano: Is it too good to be true?
Though the name evokes only ribald laughter here, the Tata family (Bombay-based Parsees of Iranian descent) has a proud history in India, dating to the creation of Tata Steel in 1907. I remember it attached to a wide variety of consumer products, from soap to breakfast cereal.
I met several members of the Tata family, including current patriarch Ratan Tata, in 1999 at a rooftop party they sponsored in Bombay. Ratan, who is on the board of the Ford Foundation, is very green-minded, and sees the $2,500 car as an improvement over the two- and four-wheeled vehicles currently on India's horrific roads. "We will have less pollution per vehicle than any other vehicle in the country today," he says. He envisions as many as 500,000 Nanos being produced each year (at that price, why not) and is flexible on fuels, suggesting ethanol as a possibility.
Perhaps your ardor for a car that costs a quarter of the cheapest cars on the U.S. market will cool when you hear that it has no radio, air conditioning, or power windows, minimal instrumentation, a tiny trunk (in front) and a hard-working 30-horsepower engine (with a third of the power of my diminutive Honda Fit).
I dunno. I like the 30-horsepower engine. I like that the car is affordable for the masses. But I'm worried that pollution controls will be the first thing to go, and that India's already pollution-choked cities will get dirtier still. At that party in Bombay, my throat was sore from breathing in the daily fumes.
To tell you the truth, an idea I like better than the Tata Nano for the people's car of the future is a $200 million joint U.S.-Israeli plan. The idea is to field a network of electric vehicles (EVs), with government sponsorship and a national network of green power recharging stations by 2011. Oil, says President Shimon Peres, "is the greatest polluter of our age and oil is the greatest financier of terror." Amen to that.
The Renault Megane is a likely base for Israel's new electric cars.
The vehicles will be built by Renault and Nissan, supplied with state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries by Project Better Place (run by Israeli/American entrepreneur Shai Agassi), then leased to customers who would pay a monthly fee comparable to a cell phone bill.
Even better, much of the electricity for the vehicles will be solar-generated through large-scale installations in the Negev Desert. Professor David Faiman, director of the National Solar Energy Center at Ben-Gurion University, tells me the Negev installations could generate one terawatt of electricity (a million megawatts) each year, from installations over six square kilometers of the Negev. The desert itself covers 10,000 square kilometers, so Dr. Faiman says, "There's lots of space to generate most of our power requirements for many, many years."
This is a great idea, and one whose time has come.
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