Welcome to the Future: Tata Motors' Disposable 1-Lakh Car

Samir Syed
by Samir Syed
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welcome to the future tata motors disposable 1 lakh car

Carburetors, fuel injection, headlights, satellite radios, ECU, ABS, air conditioning, drive-by-wire— today’s automotive technologies are variations on well-established themes. If “Crazy Henry” Ford resurrected, he’d have little problem driving– or understanding– a modern car. While automakers continue to tweak automotive systems for greater ergonomics, power, fuel economy and reliability; the improvements are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Even alternative powerplants aren’t game changers. But something else is…

To understand the next great leap, consider the camera. Never mind the changeover from film to digital image capture. Clock the fact that the device has morphed from a delicate piece of specialized equipment used by highly-trained professionals to an $8.99 mass market item sold at Walgreen’s. More importantly, drill down to the salient detail: a huge percentage of all cameras sold (even digital) are now disposable.

The car is about to repeat the exact same pattern. The era of the mass market disposable car is nigh. Let’s check the trend…

In 1909, Ford’s entry-level Model T cost $850. In 2008, the Ford Focus’ base price is $13,715. Priced in 1909 dollars, Ford’s entry-level U.S. model would cost $633. That’s a net savings of $217 in 1909 dollars compared to the Model T, or about 26 percent. And that’s without considering the vast improvements in safety, comfort, reliability, performance, etc.

According to the US DOT, there were 87m licensed drivers in 1960. Factoring 74m cars registered, we get a ratio of drivers to cars of 1.17:1. In 2003, 196m drivers owned 231m vehicles, giving a ratio of 0.83:1. As cars became cheaper, through cuts in technology cost or even through financing and leasing schemes, one-car families became two-car families. Two-car families bought a car for every person, parent or child. Then, dad bought a week-end whip.

The innovation that arrived on the scene as a toy for the elite is firmly established as an “appliance” for the majority (while the elite have moved on to personal jets). While cars still have a ways to go before full commoditization, there’s no question they’re heading in that direction.

Well, if there WAS any doubt, India’s Tata Motors is about to eliminate it. Today’s the day the Indian automaker officially unveils their highly-anticipated “1-lakh car.” The name tells the tale; one lakh equals 100k rupees or roughly $2500. The 1-lakh car will be the world’s cheapest new car, and it’s a short trip from there to the truly disposable car.

How much of a car’s overall expense is due to its mechanical longevity? Remove that requirement and you’re suddenly free to substitute mass produced plastic, wood and other materials for the more expensive metal bits, from engine parts to the body panels. Combine this freedom with the “stripper” mentality (how many disposable cameras have a zoom function?), and your costs, and thus price, sink.

When we get a good look at the 1-lakh car, we’ll see just how much performance, safety and pollution control Tata could provide for $2500. But you can bet the car is not built for the long haul— because price is all. Ironically, even without fundamentally robust mechanicals, the 1-lakh car will probably “last” (i.e. remain in operation) a lot longer than western machines; by necessity, developing countries are endlessly innovative at repairing and recycling consumer goods. But the pattern of commoditization and [relatively] rapid disposability will be set.

Tata Motors anticipates that they’ll sell up to a million 1-lakhs per year. Going by America’s early automotive experience, it’s a highly conservative estimate. Once India’s enormous rural population has access to a fully functioning automobile, it will unleash an economic expansion the world hasn’t seen since, well, America’s early automotive history. And the more prosperous India’s population becomes the more Tata Motors 1-lakh cars they’ll buy.

And just as Henry Ford’s Model T (and its production process) spawned a hundred imitators, competitors for Tata Motors’ 1-lakh car will spring-up throughout the world’s largest democracy. Ford, Suzuki and all the other automakers operating in the Indian subcontinent are already rushing ever-cheaper small cars to market. It’s only a matter of time before the trend spreads to Africa and other so-called developing nations.

There’s only one thing standing in the way of the automobile’s commoditization: government intervention. It scarcely seems credible that a government could oppose its citizens increased mobility and, thus, prosperity, but, for numerous reasons, the Powers That Be have demonized the automobile. Western European thinkers and their like-minded foreign intellectuals see the disposable car as a global apocalypse.

The truth is that it’s too late to stop the rise of the disposable car. The personal advantages of affordable personal transportation are too great to be denied. There’s too much money to be made fulfilling this desire. All we can do is make sure the disposable cars are properly recycled, as they should be.

Samir Syed
Samir Syed

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  • Casper00 Casper00 on Jan 17, 2008

    People might as well go to their nieghbor goodwill store and pick up a power wheel from the toys section.....if you're luck you'll find a 4x4 jeep.....all these crazy car concepts cars are a joke.

  • Garllo Garllo on Jan 18, 2008

    I can't imagine being on the interstate and looking in the rear view mirror only to notice that it was filled with Peterbuilt grille! I tend to think that the passengers will be disposable also. Maybe they will give you one of these if you buy a new Chevy (ala Hugo)??

  • Zipper69 It worked in London, because the center of that city is a medieval layout ON TOP of a Roman layout, both designed for horse drawn traffic.Manhattan's grid and the available public transport options are a different matter.
  • Jkross22 To give a sense of priorities, Oakland has had a 50% jump in car thefts from last year. 40 cars per day are stolen in Oakland. Also in Oakland.... the city has a shortage of 911 operators so if/when you call, you're SOL. That is because they are saying no one is applying to the open 911 jobs. When an audit was recently done, over 1000 applicants applied to the 911 jobs, but no one had contacted them. Any of them. HR still earns the term "human remains". After Xi Xingpeng returned to China from his SF visit, all of the homeless people returned to the streets of San Francisco. They were all magically whisked away for his visit, something our governor was quite proud of doing. Makes you wonder why SF residents can't get that kind of treatment everyday. With all of the big problems solved, CA reps can focus on the real problems in the state.... making those MAGA rural volleyball team buses go all electric no matter whether EV buses make sense or not. And this guy wants to be president.....
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh Dear whiny people .. keep a small number of diesel busses. replace the rest .. my god people like sticking poles in their own bike spokes...
  • Canam23 I moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and the air was barely breathable. Thanks to the mandating of pollution controls and the work of the Air Quality Management District, it's 100% better today. When the first pollution targets were set in the 70's, Detroit moaned that it would be impossible to achieve, meanwhile the Japanese sat down and figured out how to do it. As a result of the constant strengthening of the anti pollution laws, our air is much less dangerous for our children. Furthermore, engineering has now created very clean, powerful and efficient engines. So Stellantis, I'm not buying it.
  • Random1 So several of the interboro crossings are cheap: Brooklyn bridge, Manhattan bridge, Madison Ave, Willis/3rd Ave. One or two others I think.$18 is weirdly cheap, but "early bird" all-day parking is easily under $25 at many, if not most, places. That garage is actually on 62nd St, so I might be able to still drive in post-congestion, but I can't imagine they won't jack up that rate when the time comes, they're gonna be over run.