Car Sharing Could Be the Electric Vehicle’s Killer App

Paris’s Autolib maximizes the advantages of electric cars

Parisians have learned to love electric cars by sharing them. Since the late 2011 launch of the French capital’s Autolib car-sharing program, Parisians have taken its fleet of 1800 electric vehicles (EVs) on more than 2 million trips using 4000 dedicated charging points. That makes Paris one of the world’s EV meccas, with more battery-powered cars on the road and more charging points than nearly any other city.

Now Paris’s EV car-sharing vision is spreading. Autolib’s operator, Bolloré, expects to launch a program in Lyon, France, next month and is preparing further installations in Bordeaux, France; Indianapolis; and an as-yet-undisclosed Asian city. Competitors, including automakers such as Daimler and BMW, have launched their own EV car shares in more than a dozen European and North American cities [see table, “EV Car-Sharing Leaders”].

Mobility experts say these programs could accelerate EV deployment worldwide by expanding access and making EVs a normal part of the urban environment. “Car sharing is a good way for people to get experience with EVs and to demystify the whole process. It can help EVs prove themselves to the public,” says Richard Jones, deputy executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Car sharing may, in fact, be the EV’s killer app. Short trips within a defined urban perimeter and regular charging enable them to perform well despite the EV’s current 100- to 250-kilometer range. Car sharing’s pay-per-trip business model also frees users from paying the steep up-front cost of the EV’s battery. “You’re not buying the car, so you don’t worry about the cost of the battery,” says Jones.

Shouldering the risk for Paris is French industrial conglomerate Bolloré, which used its metal-extrusion expertise to develop the lithium metal polymer (LMP) batteries that propel Autolib’s Bluecar EVs. The batteries use a solid metal electrolyte in place of flammable liquids and pack more energy per kilogram than most lithium-ion batteries. Vincent Bolloré, CEO of the family-controlled firm, saw Autolib as a high-profile venture to show that the company had increased the short life span that had plagued LMP technology.

It cost more than €1.7 billion (US $2.3 billion) to develop the battery and deploy it through Autolib. “Bolloré is a true entrepreneur who takes daring risks to make things happen,” says Nicolas Louvet, director of the Paris-based mobility research group 6T.

Bolloré teamed up with Italian car designer Pininfarina to develop the compact Bluecar, whose 30-kilowatt-hour LMP battery provides an average 200-km range in urban use. Bolloré subsidiary IER, a leader in automated systems, created Autolib’s integrated user interfaces, charging stations, and network. The result is an easy-to-use system that staves off drivers’ range anxiety.

Members swiping their Autolib RFID cards at one of 800 stations are automatically given the local car with the best charge. In any case, the system will not release cars with less than a 40 percent charge. While drivers run errands, Autolib’s central control center in suburban Paris tracks each car’s trajectory and battery status. Drive a car below 20 percent charge or venture beyond the last ring of charging stations in Paris’s suburbs and an Autolib agent will contact you.

Autolib general director Morald Chibout predicts the program will start turning a profit sometime next year. And the 400 000-km battery warranty that comes with individually purchased Bluecars—2.5 times as long as the battery warranty Nissan offers for its comparably sized Leaf EV—suggests that Bolloré is confident in its LMP technology.

Car-sharing program membership grew fivefold worldwide between 2006 and 2012, according to the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, so there’s room for more programs like Autolib. Still, whether EVs actually benefit will likely depend on municipal support, according to Susan Shaheen, the center’s codirector. Only a small percentage of the 43 544 vehicles used by last year’s 1.8 million car-sharing members were EVs.

The problem is that buying and operating an EV costs about $400 more per month than a regular car, according to Carolin Reichert, head of mobility projects for the French automaker Peugeot Citroën Automobiles. Citroën’s car-sharing program in Berlin uses 350 EVs, but she says that further expansion would require city subsidies.

Surprisingly, the sharpest critics of Autolib and its competitors are some of the staunchest believers in car sharing, who say that newer programs such as Autolib are unlikely to keep users from buying their own vehicles. Research shows that the first wave of car-sharing systems, which allow members to reserve cars days or weeks in advance, convince many to give up their own cars—or to never buy one. The result is lower total car use overall. Autolib, by contrast, can only be used on the spur of the moment, so car availability is thus less assured.

Louvet says he needs data to quantify the impact, but he is betting that Autolib members who make important trips that are inconvenient without a car may still feel that they need one of their own. In other words, he says that Autolib’s stress on flexibility over dependability is squandering some of car sharing’s “enormous potential to change behavior.”

One fact, however, is undeniable: The air in Paris would be dirtier if its car-share vehicles ran on diesel or gasoline. Bolloré’s shared Bluecars consumed 5746 megawatt-hours of electricity in 2012, about four-fifths of which came from France’s low-carbon nuclear power plants. With the right power supply, the cities that follow Paris’s lead will also give their residents swipe-and-go access to cleaner driving.

About the Author

Paris-based contributing editor Peter Fairley rode a bike to his interviews with Autolib executives. In August 2013, he wrote that the threat of a big blackout remains even a decade after the U.S. Northeast and part of Canada went dark.

 

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