That’s how the BBC referred to the $2000 car introduced yesterday in India. Their reporter
had a chance to test-drive the car and said it was surprisingly … not disappointing. At least
according to the BBC, there had been concerns that Tata’s price target of 100,000 rupees
(about $2000) would make the Nano an "apology of a car," a glorified golf cart. The reporter
said the Nano felt "more expensive than it is" and is a car you would not be ashamed to sit
in. Instead of feeling like a rattletrap, the Nano is "well put-together" and (love British
understatement) "darts from one pothole to another with ease."

Analysts cited by the BBC say that the car will not be profitable for at least 6 years and
that Tata will be unable to meet projected demand because of delays in opening the chief
production facility for the car. Nevertheless, Tata plans to launch the larger, more expensive
Tata Europa in 2011, with a price of about $6,000. Like others, Tata saw sales plummet
last year and reported corresponding losses; the company is also trying to refinance the
loans it took out to buy Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford last year.

So one has to wonder: where, exactly, is the ingenuity? Yes, it is cool to intriduce such a
game-changer but it’s unsustainable if the enterprise takes a loss on every vehicle produced
for a significant period of time. Yes, it’s undeniably a huge step forward in enabling more
people to buy cars (and, despite the environmental concerns, I’m not hypocritical enough to
say that this is a bad thing — after all, I own a car), but not if 900,000 out of the 1 million
expected to put in an order can’t get one because of production issues.

This seems like a half-baked publicity stunt, but with really high stakes. "Ingenuity" is
obviously in the eye of the beholder, but I think the Beeb got it wrong here.
technology or process portends its eventual wider adoption. Bellwethers set the stage,
control early research and guide its commercialization. Formula One (F1) racing certainly
captures the imagination of everyone in the automotive industry and its trends and
technologies eventually make it into the road cars we drive.

The design of F1 cars has always been very carefully controlled by the sport’s governing
body. As a result, the cars generally look very much alike, even as they seek to exploit
loopholes to gain every possible fraction of a second. The 2009 racing season stars this
week in Australia with new rules designed to make the races more exciting and the race
vehicle technology more applicable to on-road cars. One change: redesign the F1 cars to
make it easier for one to pass another. This required changing the aerodynamics of the
cars so that the following car can get to within one second (of lap-time) of the lead car and
safely pass (both not possible under old rules). As a result, the 2009 cars will have
driver-adjustable smaller rear wings to reduce turbulence and shift the aerodynamic
balance to the front of the car, making it easier to control.

All of these changes required a reworking of the cars during the offseason – first in CAD
and CAE, then in physical models and finally in real life. Racing teams will continue to
adjust their designs as the season wears on, using advanced CFD and other analytical
tools to ensure that they wring the maximum possible advantage out of the new rules.

Why does this make F1 a bellwether? These teams spend enormous amounts of money
on wind tunnels and compute technology but are not immune to the economic realities
faced by less-glamorous enterprises. Even they must get the maximum benefit from every
dollar spent. Their use of advanced CAE leads to enhanced software capabilities, quicker
turnarounds, faster hardware and interface technologies – after all, the team that can try out
the most design alternatives between races winds up with the better-optimized car and the
greater chance of winning the next race. F1 teams pressure the vendors, the vendors
respond – and all users benefit. Too, increased emphasis on technology aimed at
commercial cars will ultimately lead to trickle-down innovations (like disc brakes in the
1980s). Just one example: 2009 designs include kinetic energy recovery systems, which
store energy generated while braking.

I’ll be writing about more bellwethers – check back.