Paris switches on electric car scheme

By Paul Betts in Paris

Paris Autolib' electric cars are put on display in Vaucresson, west of Paris

Paris will on Sunday launch an ambitious electrically powered car-share service that it hopes will not only improve the quality of life in the City of Lights but also herald a revolution in sustainable urban transport.

But the “Autolib” venture also constitutes a risky gamble both for Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, and for Vincent Bolloré, France’s best-known corporate raider and buccaneering entrepreneur, who is supplying the electric cars and operating the new service.

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In the volatile French pre-electoral political climate, Mr Delanoë hopes to repeat with the electric car project the huge popular and political – albeit costly – success of the Vélib bicycle-sharing scheme, which he launched four years ago.

The city of Paris, and its neighbouring suburban communes, have together invested more than €200m to construct the necessary infrastructure, from parking spaces to battery recharging stations. Organisers hope the project will eventually reduce the numbers of privately owned cars in the city’s crowded boulevards, while also cutting pollution.

However, local politicians have already faced protest from some voters, taxi companies and other vested interests, such as car-hire firms. Paris is already short on parking spaces and many residents worry that the 12.5km of parking space that will be devoted to the Autolib will make the situation intolerable. A number of taxi firms have threatened to take legal action against the city, claiming the new service will undercut their business. For Mr Delanoë’s rightwing opposition, the criticism is further ballast in its campaign to regain control of the Town Hall.

Mr Bolloré’s gamble is even bigger. By his own estimate, he has spent about €1.5bn over the past 15 years in developing a new solid-state lithium metal polymer battery that powers the four-seater electric vehicles. The so-called “Bluecar” – in fact a metallic silver colour in Paris – was designed and assembled by Pininfarina, the Turin-based car group better known for designing Ferraris and Maseratis.

Mr Bolloré won the competition to operate the Paris Autolib service last year against stiff competition from Veolia, which had proposed a Peugeot electric car, and a consortium including the French railways, the Paris urban transit company and Avis, which wanted to use an electric Smart. It was Mr Bolloré’s solid-state battery technology – deemed safer than the lithium-ion liquid batteries of his rivals’ cars – that ultimately swung the deal in his favour.

In the first stage of the Paris experiment, 66 cars will be available for rent from Sunday at 33 stations around the city. Customers can opt for a yearly, weekly or 24-hour package with a subscription fee of €144 a year, €15 a week and €10 for 24 hours after presenting their driving licence, an ID card and a credit card and making an uncashed deposit. They then pay between €5 and €7 for every half-hour. Following the Vélib system, users can pick up the car at one point and drop it off at another destination, as long as they can find a dedicated parking space – something that an in-car computer system is designed to help identify.

To assist users, especially in the early days of the service, Mr Bolloré has hired 1,500 employees, including 300 in a call-centre to monitor the movement of the cars and 1,200 in the streets to help resolve any teething problems. Their job will no doubt involve not only teaching Parisians how to use the cars but also trying to prevent some of the vandalism that plagued the Vélib bicycle service.

The cars, which journalists were testing on Friday, are stylish, comfortable and extremely quiet, with a top speed of 130km an hour and a range of 250km. If all goes to plan, 250 cars should be in service by the beginning of December. By next summer, that number is expected to rise to about 2,000, with as many as 3,000 by the end of 2012.

Mr Bolloré says he will continue to invest €100m a year in the project and expects to break even in seven years’ time. “Only a family controlled enterprise like mine can do this . . . I believe we are at the dawn of an urban transport revolution,” he says.

When it comes to his pet electric car and battery project, the normally cool executive at the top of a sprawling conglomerate of media, financial and industrial assets takes on the colours of an incurable optimist. “Our dream is not simply developing a car-sharing business but changing the life in our cities,” he says.

Paris is only the beginning and, if successful, he hopes the City of Lights will become a showcase for his technology – one he believes other cities around the globe, such as in China, could eventually adopt.

And should it all go horribly wrong? Mr Bolloré says he will simply be a richer man, saving €100m a year. It will be much harder for the mayor of Paris to brush off a flop in such cavalier fashion.

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