Paris is gearing up for a quiet revolution. All-electric “Autolib'” cars, based on the success of the city’s Vélib' bike-sharing scheme, will begin to appear on the streets of the capital in December.
Parisians will soon be able to use small electric cars – for a small charge and for short trips - in a car-sharing scheme its sponsors hope will herald a new era in transportation.
Dubbed “Autolib'”, the plan is similar to the hugely successful Vélib' bike-share system launched in Paris four years ago.
A two-month test involving100 users begins on Sunday. Autolib' should be available to the public by early December.
The little four-seater cars, called “Bluecar”, are entirely electric. They have a top speed of 130km/h (80mph) and can travel 250 km on a single charge.
Membership to Autolib' will cost 144 euros a year, with an extra five to eight euros for every half-hour of driving.
The money will go to the Bolloré Group, the family-owned industrial holdings company behind Autolib', which hopes to have 3,000 Bluecars circulating on the streets of Paris and its inner-ring suburbs by next summer.
The City of Paris has contributed 35 million euros to the scheme by building rental stations. Suburban local authorities have also contributed 50,000 euros for each station.
A long-term investment
Billionaire entrepreneur and Bolloré chief Vincent Bolloré also hopes the success of the programme will help promote his own battery business. He claims that the Lithium Metal Polymer batteries installed in the Bluecars store five times more energy than any other on the market.
On Friday, he told journalists in Paris the Autolib' project was a long-term investment for the group, which is also selling buses using the same battery technology to other cities in France and overseas French territory Réunion island.
“We estimate that the project will be profitable from the seventh year,” he said. “An industrial group like ours is used to (its investments) turning a profit from the sixth or seventh year.”
The Bolloré group has so far invested 200 million euros in the project, hoping that by unclogging the streets of Paris and by giving visitors a taste of driving an all-electric car, they will create a platform for selling their technology outside of France.
What are the cars like?
The company has left little to chance. Some 1,200 multilingual “ambassadors” have been hired to answer customers’ calls via video screens at parking stations as well as in the cars themselves.
The Autolib' vehicles will be constantly tracked and monitored from the operational centre, which will be staffed 24 hours a day.
At Friday’s press launch, reporters were invited to test the cars (once they had put their champagne glasses down) and FRANCE 24’s experience was positive.
The pedal layout is exactly the same as an automatic petrol car (keep that left foot well out of the way), and the gear stick offers Drive, Neutral and Reverse as the only options.
The strangeness of driving an absolutely silent car is quickly overcome by the satisfyingly powerful acceleration and solid road handling around corners.
Utilitarian good looks
The GPS offers options in French and English, and another panel indicates your speed, the status of the battery (braking hard actually fills it up) and the radio station you are listening to.
Motoring being a fickle business, the aesthetics of the car will be as decisive to its future as its road-handling ability.
The Bluecar has the functional look of a well conceived public transport utility, although it was designed and manufactured by Italian firm Pininfarina, the company responsible for sculpting Ferraris and Maseratis (as well as many trains and tram systems in France).
Time will tell if the environmental benefits – noise reduction, zero emissions, relieving congestion around town – make Autolib' and the Bluecar’s battery technology a genuine long-term success that can be exported around the world.
With the auto industry in the doldrums, car makers around the world will be watching this project closely.