The people’s car

  • 31-Mar-2008 07:30 EDT
Ray Morris.jpg

I have had the great fortune of attending automobile shows across the globe, and today I will be visiting Auto Expo 2008 in Delhi, India, marking my third visit to this show. I am expecting this year’s expo, however, to be even more exciting than usual, as Tata is set to unveil the long-awaited Rs 1 lakh (or “people’s car”), introducing this marvel to the world. In round numbers, the price tag for the Rs 1 lakh is an incredible $2500. Several other manufacturers will be introducing cars ranging in price from $3000 to $4000, all with high hopes of penetrating the immense and potentially lucrative India-based market…as well as markets in a number of other developing nations.

The question that many are asking is, “Is an extremely affordable car a good thing?” As is the case with most topics, this answer depends on your viewpoint and frame of reference.

From an economic perspective, there is a very real possibility that Tata’s new Nano will create an entirely new economy, much like Henry Ford did with the Model T. The quickly accelerating Indian auto industry will undoubtedly produce millions of jobs—some say up to 25 million of them.

From an environmental perspective, a few opinions have been voiced, some in favor and some against the “affordable car revolution.”

Sixty percent of the existing market in India already consists of small cars. The Nano 623-cm3 engines will meet Euro 4 emission standards and be more environmentally friendly than the two-wheeler engines they are likely to replace.

On the downside, several environmental groups are claiming that the additional cars on the already-congested roads will further deteriorate the quality of the air, which is widely considered to be less than stellar.

Given my position, I tend to view the Rs 1 lakh from an engineering perspective—and I can say without hesitation that this car is an accomplishment through and through, starting with its basic description: a car that can accommodate five people, meet all local safety requirements, with an all-aluminum engine featuring electronic fuel management, at a selling price of $2500.

The Rs 1 lakh is an engineering accomplishment that nearly everyone—including other Indian car companies—said was impossible. The team of 500 engineers that designed the vehicle from scratch was led by a 36-year-old. Girish Wagh was selected from among 3500 engineers in Pune by Ratan Tata because on earlier assignments he had demonstrated his ability to not be constrained by convention or doubters. Thirty-four patents, with more than half on the powertrain, resulted from this team.

This engineering achievement—and many others coming out of India and China—should inspire all engineers (regardless of whether they are designing cars, off-highway vehicles, airplanes, or new fuel-efficient powertrains) to ask questions, alter their thinking, take a fresh approach, and toss aside conservatism in the quest for “How can this design be improved to deliver the most value to the customer?” Tata Motors did it with its Rs 1 lakh, aerospace engineers at Honda and Cessna did it with their new generation of $2 million business aircrafts. Who will be next?

Raymond A. Morris, SAE Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

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