12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tata Shall Lead Us

When it comes to sustainable mobility and our transportation future, the popular imagination longs for the exotic and groundbreaking. The goal is to completely eradicate the old, noxious mindset -- symbolized by the polluting, gas-burning car -- and replace it with something drastically different, such as Aptera's sleek, otherworldy plug-in hybrid three-wheeler, which has a Jetsons-esque design, is constructed from composite materials, and reportedly gets 300 miles per gallon.

Aptera speaks to the rarefied sensibility of the developed world, but also to the contemporary assumption that function follows form: Aptera builds a car that looks alarmingly fuel efficient, so therefore it must be, just as Apple builds an MP3 player that looks as if it must be the state-of-the-art, and as a result it is. Right? Well, design matters, but it can also be a distraction, fostering a kind of mass hypnosis.

With flashy hardware like Aptera's vehicles, sustainable mobility is flirting with revising the status of the automobile, from a relic of the old manufacturing economy to a totem of the gadget-y new consumer product economy. Which sounds groovy, because we love our iPods and Flip video cameras, and why shouldn't our cars evoke the same cheerful emotions? Unfortunately, cars aren't yet a disposable thrill. Their mission has been unchanged for a century: For most people, they need to get you from A to B safely, be affordable, offer a modicum of comfort and versatility. Style is just a plus.

Even though what Aptera and many of the other new start-up car companies are doing is admirable and in fact quite cool, it's worth asking if the model they promote really has a chance to make sustainable mobility happen. They're creating niche experiments that may influence a later stage of our transportation development, but provide limited or negligible progress now. The fact is, we may have to continue to look to guidance from boring, old-fangled, large-scale manufacturing enterprises to make mobility truly sustainable for the next half century.

The company that's actually poised to take the lead is India's Tata Motors. Tata created a sensation recently when it introduced its Nano "People's Car," a $2,500 four-door that gets something in neighborhood of 50 miles per gallon (it's slated to go on sale in India next year). Tata has also announced plans to license technology and the manufacturing apparatus to build vehicles that run on compressed air and tiny amounts of gas and other combustible fuels. Meanwhile, Tata is maintaining its traditional vehicle-building operations and buying storied brands from other carmakers, including Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford.

Tata is poised to become a minor juggernaut in the brave new automotive world. As far as sustainable mobility goes, it's in an almost ideal position to determine the shape of the future -- a shape that won't be based on out-there tech, but on practical solutions to everyday problems. For example, India's burgeoning middle class needs personal transportation. Enter the Nano, which is all the car many car-less Indians require at the moment. Detractors on the environmental front have argued that mass-motorization in India is the worst thing that could happen as far as global warming is concerned, but India is going to motorize regardless. Doing so with the high-mileage, relatively low emissions Nano is by far the best way to go.

At the same time, Tata is expanding into exports and luxury brands, giving itself three points of access to the global car market. The United States and Japan each lack the ultra-low-cost entry-level segments. Or do they? Tata's air car tech has already captured some attention among those consumers who want an urban-commuting option. Is it such a stretch to think that a version of the Nano, upgraded to meet U.S. safety benchmarks, could be taking to our roads in the next decade? We have some experience with small, rear-engine imports, after all: It was called the VW Beetle.

Tata Motors represents a modern-day version of what Detroit could have become if it had begun to adjust its products to obviously impending future needs back in the 1970s. At that time, in the wake of the first gas crisis, Americans were still highly receptive to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. It took pressure from Japanese imports to get Detroit to build their own versions, which of course it abandoned as soon as oil prices entered a prolonged stasis in the 1990s. Now Detroit has no flexibility and is enduring the extreme pain that comes from ignoring sustainability. (OK, they didn't call it "sustainability" in 1974, but the same basic issues were at play in the environmental movement.)

Ironically, the North American automobile market is ripe for sustainable mobility. Americans can think about their future automotive purchasing in a multi-layered manner: affluence allows for mileage and emissions goals to be factored in -- hence the success of the Toyota Prius, which sells at a premium of thousands of dollars relative to other fuel-efficient, low-emission cars. The Prius advertises one's virtuous commitment to the cause. The Nano, on the other hand, is sustainable by necessity. And we all know that's the true source of change.