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Unsafe at Any Price: Building the New 'People's Car'

Brendan Smith, Tim Costello and Jeremy Brecher

On January 10th, 2008 Tata Motors of India unveiled its new low-cost Nano, touted by auto experts as a visionary "People's Car." Expected to retail for as little as $2500, Tata hopes to market its new car to the millions of consumers throughout the developing world that are expected to hit the road in the next decades.

Tata remains out ahead of its competitors with plans to manufacture the Nano in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, but other car companies such as the French-Japanese alliance Renault-Nissan and the Indian-Japanese joint venture Maruti-Suzuki are racing to figure out how to make their own ultra-cheap cars for the emerging middle classes of China, India and elsewhere. And it's no wonder. Car sales in India are growing by more than 20 percent a year, compared with 3 percent globally. A recent survey by Invest India Market Solutions shows that as many as 12.8 million Indian households can be potential buyers for entry-level cars in the years to come, 1.6 million of them in 2008 alone. Sales are also booming in China: car ownership is up 300 percent over the last six years and the country's total number of cars is expected to top 140 million in little more than a decade.

Meanwhile, car sales in the developed countries are plummeting. In 2007, U.S. car sales dropped to their lowest point in a decade, and analysts are expecting 2008 to mark the third straight year of shrinkage in domestic car sales. And according to Maryann Keller, an auto consultant, `It's not just the United States that's going down, it's western Europe. Everybody is aiming at Russia, China and India.''

As a result of slumping sales, struggling Western car companies are, according to the New York Times, "looking to see where the cost-obsessed ethos of the developing world can help their bottom line." On the same day Tata unveiled its new Nano, Ford Motors announced plans to more than double its investment in India--raising its total stake to $875 million--to make the country a regional hub for small-car manufacturing, compete for the fast-growing local low-cost market, and to build a new engine manufacturing plant.

Such plans have are keeping some in the environmental community awake at night. Transportation has the fastest growing carbon emissions of any economic sector and automobiles are largely to blame with more than 600 million passenger vehicles now cruising the world's roads. The prospect of millions of new cars spells an exponential rise in carbon emissions as well as other kinds of pollutants. The top U.N. climate scientist and chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri, recently told the Washington Post that he is already "having nightmares" about precisely this scenario.

It's not just the number of new cars rolling out of manufacturing plants, companies like Tata cut costs by avoiding the use of expensive emissions-cutting and modern safety technologies. According to the New York Times, the Nano:

would most likely fail emission and safety standards on any Western road, and, perhaps, in India in a few years, when the country imposes tougher environmental standards. Unlike cars in the United States, Indian vehicles do not have to come in for regular inspections after they are on real roads, which often batter the systems that curb emissions. Michael Walsh, a pollution consultant and former United States Environmental Protection Agency regulator, said that a car so cheap was likely to lack the complex technology to maintain its initial level of emissions and that without such technology cars could soon be producing four to five times their initial pollution level. "It strikes me as impossible that such a vehicle will be a very clean vehicle over the life of the vehicle," Mr. Walsh said.

The prospect of the Nano becoming a household name like BMW or Ford provoked the German weekly Der Spiegel to declare Tata's innovation an "eco-disaster." Many see the Nano as far from "visionary." As one commentator based in India wrote:

The last thing India's choked roads need is more cars on them. India ignores the considerable advantages of its belated development: it enjoys up-to-the-minute technology and more than half a century of hindsight on the successes and failures of other industrialized societies. Instead of creating a new vision, India is content to copy mid-20th-century Western patterns of unplanned, unsustainable, highly consumptive development, even though these proved deeply flawed long ago.

Last week the New York Times editorial board chastised Tata's CEO for his short-sightedness:

We know now that gas-driven automobiles do terrible damage to the environment, and the notion of loosing millions upon millions of new carbon emitters on our planet is not something to celebrate. So while we admire Mr. Tata's business and engineering acumen in creating the Nano, we ardently wish that he would focus his talents elsewhere: creating transportation that is both affordable and doesn't emit ever more greenhouse gases. That would be something for the whole world to celebrate and buy.

Of course there is deep hypocrisy in developed countries criticizing the driving habits of the developing world. As Michael Renner of Worldwatch Institute recently wrote, let's all:

remember who has driven the planet to the edge of the climate abyss. People in Western countries and Japan--less than 15 percent of the world's population--own two-thirds of all passenger and commercial motor vehicles in the world. Although they are rapidly expanding their fleets, India and China, with a third of the world's population, so far account for only about 5 percent of vehicles. In 2005, China's ratio of motor vehicles to population was at about the level the United States had reached some 90 years earlier. India's ratio is less than half that of China.


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Developed countries' environmental critiques and campaigns need to start at home. Politicians, labor unions and environmental activists have a responsibility not to brandish global warming as a stick to bash workers and consumers in India or China. Instead the argument for progressive global warming policy must begin with the acknowledgment of the destructive policies of our home governments and corporations; this includes taking responsibility for developed countries majority contribution to the climate crisis.

At the same time we need to publicly denounce US and EU based multinational companies for compensating for decades of poor investment and design decisions by now roaming the globe in search of opportunities to profit on lower emissions standards in developing countries. The advantage of such campaigns is that many of these multinational companies are headquartered in the cities where we live, presenting concrete opportunities for action. The environmental and labor movements might demand, for example, that US and EU based companies be penalized unless they agree to meet uniform global fuel standards in all countries where their cars are manufactured and sold. For at minimum, companies like Ford and Renault should not be reaping rewards for developing cheap polluting vehicles abroad and driving the world nearer to the brink of environmental disaster.

But our efforts should not stop at our borders. Global warming is a global problem spanning oceans and borders alike. Citizens from every country retain a fundamental right to fight carbon emitters wherever they are located. Ordinary people--whether in India, US, China, Europe or elsewhere--have a direct interest in Tata's new Nano and Ford's destructive investment decisions. Much like global labor rights, global warming begs for global solutions.

Today, the real task is not to create a "people's car" but a "people's transport system". Addressing the climate crisis requires entirely new approaches to moving people and goods--one not based on cars and trucks. The US created an automobile culture during the 20th century at enormous long term costs. The automobile brings with it not just greenhouse gas emissions but an entire infrastructure that is devastating to the social and natural environment--roads, the oil industry, urban congestion, and suburban sprawl. It's a system the US and other rich countries now must transform and one which the developing world can still avoid.

Public policies and new technologies should be directed at developing the least polluting mode of transport at each scale of distance. That means promoting walking and biking, especially in cities; building new and better public transit systems; and revitalizing intercity rail for both passengers and freight. And since, for the foreseeable future, automobiles and trucks will continue to play a major transportation role, developing and mandating low emission vehicles remains a key goal.

Shifting to a climate friendly transportation system is daunting task. But there is a big payoff and not just in cleaner air: in a world in need of decent jobs, it is a challenge that can provide millions of people throughout the world with employment for decades to come.

-- Brendan Smith, Tim Costello and Jeremy Brecher

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