Ratan Tata '59, B. Arch. '62, was riding in his car one night a few years ago in Bangalore, India, when a scooter carrying an Indian family of four -- a common sight throughout the subcontinent -- slid on a drizzle-slicked road, just missing the car.
"At that time I figured, if we want to make a contribution we should find out what we could do to make safer transport available at an affordable price," said Tata, the chairman of India's Tata Group, a multinational conglomerate, speaking June 5 in Sibley Hall as part of Cornell's Reunion Weekend activities.
The result is the new $2,500 Nano minicar, made by the group's Tata Motors arm, that seeks to provide an affordable, safe alternative to the millions of two-wheeled vehicles now in use across India.
Tata's question-and-answer presentation on the world's cheapest car -- deliveries of which begin in India in the next few weeks -- and its potential impact on Indian society, was moderated by Kent Kleinman, dean of Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning.
In Bailey Hall later in the afternoon, Tata delivered the annual Olin Lecture, which took the form of a dialogue with Cornell President David Skorton on "Corporate Social Responsibility in the 21st Century."
The 1,200-pound, four-door "bare-bones car," has a rear 33 horsepower, two-cylinder gasoline engine that gets 65 miles-per-gallon. It has a single side mirror and windshield wiper, is priced at about half the cost of other Indian cars and is roughly twice the price of a scooter, Tata said. At the same time, it makes use of vertical space so passengers sit high, creating more legroom. "This car seats five people," he said. There is also a higher end, air-conditioned Nano LX model that will sell for about $3,700.
Already, there are 200,000 orders for the Nano and the LX model, 90 percent of which have been paid in advance. With 60,000 cars to be produced this year, there will be a two-year wait for some orders, Tata noted.
Indians opposed to the car have mentioned pollution, congestion and safety, Tata said, concerns that the company has tried to address.
The car meets European safety standards and is safer than many existing Indian cars, Tata asserted, but would not meet more stringent United States standards that additionally require a rear crash test. Tata Motors is currently redesigning the car for the American market, with plans to sell a slightly larger vehicle here for around $7,500 in two years.
Regarding the question of increased pollution from adding so many new cars to Indian roads, Tata noted that because the Nano has high gas mileage, it "is considerably less polluting than a scooter."
"In terms of congestion, there is going to be a problem until India's infrastructure and roads improve," said Tata. "That's an issue that India is going to have to face, whether it be scooters or cars," though the Nano will replace many motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and other small cars, he added.
In the Olin Lecture, Skorton and Tata discussed the social responsibilities of corporations. The Tata Group's many philanthropic trusts make it the largest grant-making organization in India, with aid to such areas as agriculture, water conservation, literacy and education. This year, the Tata Education and Development Trust committed $50 million to Cornell to establish the Tata Scholarship Fund for Students from India and the Tata-Cornell Initiative in Agriculture and Nutrition.
The $25 million dollar scholarship fund, which will bring the first four Indian students to Ithaca this fall, "was devised to give underprivileged Indians the chance to come to Cornell" and get an education they would not otherwise have access to, Tata said. The remaining $25 million will be used to create agricultural programs in India to increase crop yields, introduce new agricultural technologies and better manage water. India has "over a billion people… and we have a problem," he said. "We need to make sure we can continue to feed our people."