Ratan Tata says inspiration for Nano was safety

The idea for the Tata Nano -- a car that has attracted worldwide attention for its revolutionary design and $2,500 price tag -- began with a concern for the safety of families on India's roads and some idle time in the boardroom.

"The fact of unsafe travel was bothering me," Ratan Tata '59, B.Arch. '62, and chairman of Tata Sons Ltd., said March 10 in a conversation with Architecture, Art and Planning Dean Kent Kleinman in Kennedy Hall's Call Auditorium. "What really motivated me, and sparked a desire to produce such a vehicle, was constantly seeing Indian families riding on scooters, four or five on a scooter, maybe the child sandwiched between the mother and father, riding to wherever they were going, often on slippery roads in the dark."

Tata shared his thoughts on the car and on transportation in India during the two-day symposium, "Unpacking the Nano: The Price of the World's Most Affordable Car."

"One of the benefits of being five years in the School of Architecture, it taught me to doodle when I was bored," Tata said, prompting laughter from the audience. "And board meetings were a place I would get bored."

At first, he and the Tata Motors engineers were "trying to figure out how to make scooters safer," Tata said. "That mutated into four wheels, no windows, no doors, just a basic dune buggy. I finally decided it should be a car."

After determining a desired price for the car, 100,000 rupees or $2,500, "most of my colleagues thought I was mad," he said.

Tata said he wants to provide inexpensive, safe transportation to the masses -- putting it within the reach of the 300 million to 500 million members of India's growing middle class -- but has no desire to simply make "a trendy, affordable car."

"We have to commit to making the product better all the time -- so, five years from now, it is not the same Nano," he said.

The symposium, exploring the car's design and its impact on the landscape and on society, was intended as an inquiry into "the social traffic of objects and the social life of things, [as] the Nano, an object of extreme design intelligence, enters the slipstream of society," Kleinman said.

"The imagination of the aspiring Indian consumer is the issue -- their ability to imagine their own mobility," New York University professor Arjun Appadurai said in his keynote address March 10 on "What Does the Nano Want?"

"It is a society and a culture that thrives on adaptability, on density, on maneuverability," Appadurai said. "Indians like the idea of more in less, not more is less."

The symposium also included breakout sessions March 11 in Ives Hall with architects, designers, urban planners and others, on the Nano's design process, its place in the contexts of landscape, the public realm of the city and mobility, and its potential effects on design practices. The sessions were followed by a second keynote, "Storytelling in the City," with New York University's Suketa Mehta.

The related exhibition, "Unpacking the Nano," continues through March 27 at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Information: http://aap.cornell.edu/events/nano.

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Blaine Friedlander