Mass psychosis or just developmentally handicapped?


Apparently, the world’s cheapest car (at just $2200!) is a dud. As of January it wasn’t selling well, not even in India where it’s being built. Which is a puzzle, since you’d think more of India’s budding middle class would want something affordable to get them out of the rain.

It’s not that the Tata Nano is a bad car, though it is tiny and pod-like and has predictably few safety features. It’s actually a cute little smart-tech machine, designed in Italy and manufactured by Tata, a world-class manufacturer that also makes Jaguar and Land Rover. So what’s really going on?

Two things, really. First, competition at the lowest price point in India is pretty fierce. Both General Motors and Suzuki are battling it out for leadership of the second-lowest price point in the market, the $4000 to $5000 range, and they’re marketing aggressively. Second, their marketing works—especially at knocking the Nano. Both GM and Suzuki have managed to position the Nano as an anti-status item for losers. Indians, like the rest of us, are easily lured by upscale products.

Naturally, the negative marketing woke up the giant, and Tata is finally retaliating with some strong marketing of its own, and as of today, sales are up to 10,000 units a month. There’s also been buzz about Tata upgrading the Nano to hit the European and American markets in the $6000 price range.

Meanwhile here on the home front gas prices climbed to $1.34 a liter before dropping a bit a couple of days ago. So gas is on my mind, especially as we consider replacing one of our vehicles. But what to buy? We need a family vehicle with lots of seats, so that rules out the Nano class, for sure, which limits the choices to a minivan, an SUV or a four-door pickup truck.

I’ve watched a couple of neighbours go through the same process recently, and both have gone the big pickup truck route. I’ve done that number, too, and it feels great to be the King of the Road sitting up high with a big V8 underfoot. And the price is right, too. You can buy a good late model truck for under $20,000 and with the difference between that and a brand new $60,000 SUV, you can buy a whole lot of gasoline. Plus there’s a kind of reverse status to the pickup—a tougher image—like what owning a Harley used to deliver.

But there it is again: the status thing. Whether in India or China or Canada, status trumps fuel economy every time. And the car companies know it. That’s why, as their engines have become much more efficient over the past 20 years, the new units have gone into ever larger vehicles, which effectively wiped out most of the fuel savings we might have gained.

Let’s face it. The biggest price we pay for a vehicle is the status factor. If we (or a smart ad agency) could change how we view status, we’d all be jumping into cheap Nano-like gas misers next week.

The second biggest price we pay for a vehicle is poking a hole in the air. Car companies know this, too, and routinely ignore it. But almost all the energy in a liter of gasoline (and the 2.2 kilograms of carbon it produces) goes into opening that hole in the wall of air—especially as we drive faster into the wall. This is the reason trains are more economical to operate per tonne than transport trucks. With just one engine a train manages to very efficiently pull 100+ railcars through a single hole in the air.

So why haven’t we applied that thinking to cars? For example, why don’t we “train” or chain cars together electronically for long highway commutes? Or why don’t we have stretched minicars instead of huge trucks and SUVs? And why aren’t we legislating the exclusive use hybrids and electrics?

Why? Because we’re missing the point. We’ve been trained (and sold) to see things from a purely personal view. But resource depletion is not a personal issue. It’s a collective problem. As a global population, we’re gobbling up more than 80 million barrels of oil a day to keep our economy going, and that’s a real concern, especially since we’re running out of the stuff. And that doesn’t even touch on the 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 we’re pumping out every day.

So, what to do? What to buy? It’s a conundrum. The real answer is, we have to begin acting collectively…and that means government. By regulating the use of tobacco products we’ve managed to make smoking socially inappropriate. Why not do the same with our transportation? We have the responsibility to regulate the kinds of vehicles we allow on our public roads and the volume of emissions we will allow into our ecosphere.

Where we clearly fail is in electing more forward-thinking politicians and not putting more pressure on them after they’re elected. We need to do better.

As for me, I’m confident enough in my manhood. I think it would be cool to drive a stretched Nano or a Prius. How about you?


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