The Tata Nano isn’t just one more small car ready to enter the world’s stream of endless transportation options; it’s a revolution. Costing just a little over $2,500, it’s half the price of the next cheapest car on the road today which means just about anyone with a mid-sized call center paycheck can pick one up. For this month’s issue, WIRED sent me out to explore how the Nano will change the Indian economy. I tracked down powerful city planners and iconic environmentalists in Bangalore and sat inside a Nano prototype in the Tata factory in Pune. After criss crossing the country on the Nano-trail I think I have a good idea about what to expect when the car finally hits the roads. It’s not a pretty picture.

On its own, the Nano is a great automobile. The engine is small and fuel efficient, it meets most environmental standards, and it is a whole lot safer than a motorcycle or scooter. But with 350,000 set to be produced in the first year, and untold millions in the years after that, the Nano portends a massive strain on India’s already stressed infrastructure. The crux of the problem is that developing world governments aren’t able to keep pace with private industry. There are already too many cars on the road and there don’t seem to be plans to adapt to the coming influx.

We can’t blame the Nano for being a cool car that a lot of people will want to buy–it is much nicer than the Maruti 800 which sells for $5000, and I’m beginning to think that it even puts my own Hyundai Santro to the test–but at the state level, there don’t seem to be solutions in the works. At one level it is just a problem of geometry, as more people drift from two-wheelers to four wheelers, there will be less overall space for vehicles to navigate. At the same time, a lot fewer people are taking buses (who would want to when they are so cramped?). As citizens depend increasingly on private transportation the whole system tends towards gridlock.

And now that automakers know that it is possible to produce cars in the nano price range engineers from Germany to Japan are making plans to mass-assemble their own versions.

At $2,500 people who were never able to afford cars before suddenly can. According to figures I culled from World Bank data, the global pool of potential car owners could increase by as much as 800 million once ultra-compact cars are available world-wide.

This means big problems for administrators who are trying to keep developing world cities moving. Streets that are already clogged will get worse. Fuel prices that are already high will go higher.

Check out the story in this month’s issue of WIRED. Or just click this link.


In other news, I wasn’t able to go to this year’s SAJA awards in New York. That’s a real shame because I was the finalist for the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Story about South Asia: the conference’s top award.