A comment I heard this week from an engineer at a domestic automaker was typical. "We could easily make a car as cheap as the Nano. But nobody would want to buy it in China," he said.
True, the Nano might be too cheap and basic for China. But there is still one thing Chinese engineers can learn from it, and that is innovation.
Since its debut in January last year, the Nano has received worldwide acclaim.
It has the smallest exterior of any Indian car so it's very easy to park. But at the same time, the Nano has 21 percent more interior space than India's second smallest car, so it can comfortably accommodate four adults. A high seating position makes for easy getting in and out.
The Nano also has the lowest starting price for any car in the world: a mere $2,000 (RMB 13,700).
It is high on fuel efficiency and low on emissions. And it is safe, at least by Indian standards.
Yet more than these miracles of size and economy, what's truly great about the Nano is the innovation it embodies.
Tata Motors' chairman, Ratan N. Tata, summed this up at a recent press conference in India: "The Nano represents the spirit of breaking conventional barriers. From the drawing board to its commercial launch, the concept, development and commercialization of the car has overcome several challenges."
Like India, China is well known as a low cost base for manufacturing, including auto making.
But the spirit of innovation, of "breaking conventional barriers" as Mr. Tata put it, is hardly in evidence among Chinese automakers.
To be sure, some Chinese automakers are working hard to develop their own cars. Such efforts can be seen in the design of the Roewe 550 compact sedan of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. and that of the A3 small car of Chery Automobile Co.
Nonetheless, nearly all car design in China is still done through reverse engineering. Chinese cars look like the international models they copy. But Chinese engineers have a limited understanding of what they are doing. Product safety and quality remain poor.
Considering the short history of Chinese auto-making, the quality gap between domestic brands and global giants such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen is understandable. Yet catching up is possible. Indian innovation – meaning the design and development of completely new products and processes from scratch – shows the way.
Like India, China offers tremendous opportunities for automakers to exploit and create new markets through innovation.
China has a very low car ownership rate. At around 20 vehicles per 1,000 people, it's far below the global average.
Most Chinese people, especially those in the countryside, can't afford cars now on the market.
"It is to the credit of the team at Tata Motors that a car once thought impossible by the world is now a reality. I hope it will provide safe, affordable, four-wheel transportation to families who until now have not been able to own a car," Mr. Tata said at the same press conference.
I am not a nationalist. But as a Chinese national, one day I would be delighted to hear something like this coming from an executive at a domestic Chinese carmaker.
Yang Jian is the managing editor of Automotive News China, a publication of Crain Communications.
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