What Would Gandhi Drive?

The Nano

Nano Nano
Nano has been a buzz word in physics for a while. Now it is also the name of a car, made by Tata Motors of India. It is cute, looking more like a toy car than a real one. It is small. I have seen potholes in Calcutta that are bigger. And most of all it is cheap. It costs less than the DVD player in the SUV that some of my neighbors drive. The Nano is unlikely to be another Yugo: India is not in danger of breaking up, destroying its supply chain. The dream is that will be the next Volkswagen Bug. More likely it will be the next Trabant. Not too bad.

Whether the Nano succeeds or not, it is part of a larger trend. This is what engineering for the masses will look like in the future. What the iPod did to the record industry and the arxiv did to costly journals is about to happen to many well-established businesses.

So what do the $2,500 car and the $200 laptop tell us? Driving and computing are not the only things that can be done much cheaper and smaller. Let us look at our own business. Even scientific research is currently bogged down by bloated burocracies. A typical Experimental High Energy Physics paper can have 600 authors. Collaborations with 2000 authors are being formed as you read this. Are all of these people really necessary?

Too Big is Bad Even in Science

Recent budget cutbacks have not provoked outrage outside the narrow physics constituency. We have to reconsider the way conduct business. Is the enormous cost of these scientist-armies justified by the results? The last true surprise in Accelerator-based High Energy Physics (the tau lepton) was in 1972, at the dawn of the current age of dinosaurs. There has to be a better way to spend the taxpayer’s precious gift to us. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. If so, scarcity is the father.

It is not that all big science is doomed to failure. Cosmology and Astrophysics have made great advances recently. But if you look into it, you will see that the papers are written by teams of thirty to forty people, who may be using facilities built by much larger teams. And they spend a lot of their time and energy explaining the value of what they do to the public. This might be a model to follow. Considering that the biggest white elephant in science is the space station, it is ironic that other parts of NASA can be a model of efficiency.

Small is Beautiful

Competition from lean, even if not mean, institutes set up in cheaper countries like India and Korea have already put many inefficient industrial research labs out of business. A smaller operation is not only cheaper but can also be more innovative and respond to changes quickly. Thus, it benefits science as much as the sclerotic operations harms it. A project with over a thousand PhDs cannot afford to take risks. No one really understands it from top to bottom. It can find something already predicted by some established theory. But is that really a discovery?

Why did Indian engineers achieve something that their much better paid counterparts in Detroit could not? The point is that no one else was even trying to make so cheap a car. There is no market for it except in India and other developing countries. So, the presumption is that there is no profit in it. This is wrong because those are the fastest growing markets, with the opportunity for greatest profit. There are already two cars per household in the US. Where is the growth?

Safety standards in the US are often blamed for the inefficiency. There is some truth to this. Safety standards are nonexistent and irrelevant in a country like India. Any car is safer than the entire family traveling on a scooter, weaving through the insane Indian traffic.

Other Nano ideas are more adaptable. A fifty horse power engine is enough . It consumes less and pollutes less. 45 miles per hour is breakneck speed on an Indian road. So it is in an American city. There could a class of car that is certified only for city streets, not for the highway. A/C would be great to have but people don’t demand it at this price range. Hard to give up heating though, as they did in the Nano.

The truth is that the Indian willingness to put up with all sorts of inconveniences and hazards at work is part of why things can be done so much cheaper over there. But this was true of the US as well in the days of Edison and Carnegie. A hungry young nation simply thinks of comfort and safety differently.

The bloated and pampered auto industry in the US is slowly selling off its assets, defeated by its own linear thinking. GM is spends more on its retired employees than the currently active ones. Ironically, Tata might end up buying Jaguar from Ford. There is no contradiction in making both the cheapest and one of the most expensive cars. That is the way it has always been in India: squalor and luxury separated by a thin wall.

By the way, Gandhi didn’t drive. He was much more into walking. And I confess to being no Gandhi. I drive a Toyota SUV. It is an unusually balmy 33 degrees F (1C) today in Rochester. A good day to walk to work.

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