General Motors announced months ago that “China is the future.” it is gearing up for a big push into the low end of the Chinese market, making stripped-down cars and minivans that it hopes will double sales in China to 5 million vehicles in the next four years.
The “people’s car” is not a new genre. The Germans did it with the VW, the French with Citroën’s famed “Deux Chevaux,” and the Japanese I withmany postwar variations. The most recent entrant is the Nano from India’s Tata Motors, a subcompact selling for $2,500.
It is difficult for a Westerner to suggest that those now rising on the development ladder should not have the same fruits of hard work and well-earned prosperity. Nothing symbolizes progress as we now understand the term more effectively than a car. It confers autonomy on its owner and a sense of power and choice on the person behind the wheel. It literally drives people out of one life—the village, the congested city—and into another.
But China now has about 40 cars on the road per 1,000 people; the U.S. has nearly 800 per 1,000. The bald truth is that the planet cannot possibly survive the kind of growth in Chinese car ownership that GM, VW, and numerous domestic producers envision.
“Green” cars are of course one solution to this obvious conundrum, hats off to China for pushing ahead in this and other environmental technologies. But fuel conversion alone will not do the job. Having made a long case study of the Indian market when Tata unveiled its “people’s car” three years ago, it was plain to me that goals and aspirations are the fundamental issue: They have to change.
The task, as we contemplate thousands of miles of new asphalt on mainland China and in India and millions of new drivers, is to redefine “progress” beyond its 19th century meaning—a purely material definition at bottom—by thinking in 21st century terms. Cars of one kind or another will be part of life for any foreseeable future. But inducements to travel by other means—public transportation especially—will eventually have to be vigorously proffered.
China’s planners seem to know this. They are now building bullet trains and constructing inter-city routes that shrink two-day journeys down to a few hours. Getting no-frills minivans into village driveways may be good for GM. It is not at all clear it will turn out to be good for the Chinese down the road.