Green Scheme: Paris's Electric Car Sharing Plan

Autolib would operate on much the same basis as Paris' Vélib program, whose sleek gray rental bikes have become a common sight on city streets since its launch in 2007, and which has been widely copied around the world. Drivers will be able to pick up either a two-seat or four-seat car at any rental stand without a reservation by simply swiping a credit card in a reader. The car can then be dropped off at any stand when it's no longer needed. Although rates haven't been set yet, city officials say each half-hour is likely to cost $6 to $9.

Counting on Subscription Fees

Some 700 Autolib stands are to be built within Paris, including 500 curbside locations and another 200 in parking garages. Another 700 stands will be built in suburbs adjoining the city. Each stand will have recharging posts for the car batteries, which take six to eight hours to refill fully.

Customers would have to register for Autolib in advance, presenting a valid driver's license and paying a monthly subscription fee of about $22 to $29. Companies bidding for the Autolib contract are banking on these fees to turn a profit. "There is a very successful market out there today regarding short-term car rentals," says Laurent Salanie, marketing director for Avis France. "That's why we're so keen to do this project."

Paris officials say no other major city has attempted such a program, although a small-scale version has existed since 2007 in the city of Antibes on the French Riviera. The Antibes program has only 11 electric cars, all Maranello models made by Italian automaker Effedi. "Paris is proposing a massive project, which in my opinion is far too ambitious," says George Gallais, CEO of VuLog, a software company that pioneered Antibes' electric car sharing scheme, CitéVu, two years ago. "Electric cars are very fragile and expensive to maintain and repair. I don't know how Paris intends to keep 4,000 cars in good shape." Indeed, despite its popularity, the Vélib program has been plagued by vandalism and theft.

Push for Bikes Instead?

Another potential obstacle: surprising opposition from French environmentalists, including some political allies of Delanoë, who argue that Autolib cars could worsen congestion on Paris' already-crowded streets. Environmentalists favor ride-sharing programs or more traditional rental schemes in which cars have to be reserved and then returned to the same location, which discourages people from going for drives on a whim. "Encouraging the public to use any type of car instead of taking bikes or public transportation is a mistake," says Denis Baupin, a deputy mayor of Paris and a prominent Green Party leader.

Advocates of Autolib, however, contend that people will be less likely to buy cars if they have access to flexible, short-term rentals for grocery shopping and other errands that might be difficult to do using a bicycle or public transit. The cars will probably have a driving range of no more than 100 miles before needing a recharge, making them unsuitable for long trips. "It's a pain to own a car in Paris given how expensive and scarce parking is," says Stéphanie Véron, a spokesperson for Paris city hall. "Autolib offers a convenient and eco-friendly alternative."

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