Nano nothing to sneeze at


News from India on Thursday has the potential to turn the world upside down.

Indian automaker Tata began selling the world's cheapest car, the Nano, which goes for less than $3,000.

Visually, the 1,300-pound vehicle reminds me of a squished-in Volkswagen Beetle. It comes with a 2-cylinder, 624 cc engine, seats four and has a top speed of about 65 mph.

The Nano can only carry about four gallons of gasoline, but the more than 3-yard long, 4-foot wide, and 5-foot tall compact machine gets more than 50 miles per gallon.

You may be thinking, what does this have to do with me?

It's true Tata doesn't have immediate plans to sell the Nano in the United States.

But the development and sale of the Nano will have far reaching implications that could alter the world as we know it.

India is the world's second largest nation with a population of more than a billion people. But it is a nation where fewer than 10 out of every 1,000 people own a car, or about 1 percent of India's population. Compare that to the United States, with nearly 800 cars for every 1,000 people.

Tata is hoping the Nano will change that disparity.

The car is being marketed as an affordable vehicle for India's growing middle class, whose members make considerably less money than the U.S. middle class.

(To give you an idea of the difference, a police officer in Coimbatore, India, told The Associated Press he made 12,000 rupees a month, or about $2,950 a year. A rookie Las Vegas police officer is paid more than $50,000 annually).

For many middle class Indians today, bicycles, rickshaws, public transit and rail, as well as good old fashioned walking, are the only affordable means of transportation.

So, as you can imagine, there's immense interest in a car that costs under $3,000. Some news reports indicated the Tata Web site had received more than 40 million hits on Thursday.

The right to buy the Nano will go through a lottery. Tata officials will randomly pick the first 100,000 people who can purchase the vehicle.

John Cadogan, an editor for Australian-based Wheels Magazine, recently told an Australian news agency, an affordable car such as the Nano has the potential to double the number of vehicles on the planet, from 900 million to 1.8 billion.

"That will have profound impacts for carbon dioxide production, greenhouse (gases), the environment and health generally," Cadogan said.

But we Americans, for the most part, seem to care more about the price of fuel than its negative effects on the world.

So here's some food for thought or oil for burning: Fuel production has already reached its peak.

There are barely enough fuel refineries in the world to meet the current demand for petrol, nevermind doubling the number of automobiles in the world.

Cadogan said this rush of new cars will put enormous pressure on the price of oil.

"Oil is running out and in fact we're at about peak oil production now, and China and India are running to the party and the keg is half empty," he said.

"So what that's going to do is increase demand, fix supply, join the dots. Economics 101 tells us that the price can only go one way, and that is up," Cadogan said.

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