Joy ride: IEA test-drives the Parisian electric car-sharing system

20 November 2012

Photo: © Pascal Anziani

As electric vehicles reduce oil consumption and vehicle carbon emissions on a per-kilometre basis, a team from the International Energy Agency recently checked out the innovative Parisian car-sharing system that allows tourists and residents to criss-cross Paris for a modest fee – and an even more attractive cost in carbon emissions: zero.

Paris inaugurated Autolib'' in December 2011. The programme now offers 1 740 cars at any of 700 charging stations, each with space for at least three vehicles, with plans to expand soon to 3 000 cars and 1 050 stations

‌IEA Deputy Executive Director Richard H. Jones led a delegation of IEA analysts as they visited the offices of the Autolib' electric-car-sharing programme for the Paris metropolitan area.

 “Autolib' has transformed Paris into the world’s biggest experiment for vehicle electrification,” Ambassador. Jones said after his test-drive. “It shows other cities how easily electric vehicles can avoid both local pollution and the hassle of parking in a densely populated city, all in the context of a paradigm shift from ownership to ‘usership’.”

The IEA outing took place a week after the Agency took part in an Electric Vehicles Initiative(EVI) meeting in Stuttgart where major auto and battery companies and governmental policy makers discussed their experiences and the strategies for the next phase of electric vehicles’ market deployment. In May 2012, the EVI released the EV City Casebook, which details deployment efforts in 16 cities around the world.  Paris officials wanted to learn from the IEA about best practices in other cities and how those programmes overcame various challenges.

Autolib' is modelled on the successful public-private bicycle-sharing programme called Vélib’ that Paris introduced in 2007, and which inspired similar systems in cities from Barcelona to Mexico City to Guangzhou, China. New York City’s bike-sharing programme is scheduled to start in March 2013. 

In less than a year, more than 42 000 people have signed up for Autolib', whose auto fleet has nearly sextupled in size. Not all of the subscribers are Parisians: about 10 percent of users are tourists. And no wonder. Anyone with an international driver’s license and a photo ID can register online or use a video connection at one of the 60 subscription stations in the city to register and get behind the wheel within six minutes.

Already, drivers have used an Autolib' car for 646 000 trips around the Paris area, with guaranteed parking at the end of the drive. Those same trips with a comparable fossil-fuelled car would have emitted more than 730 metric tonnes of CO2 , or more than the equivalent of driving a top-of-the-line Porsche Cayenne sport-utility vehicle from Paris to Beijing and back more than 160 times.

The average Autolib' trip lasts 42 minutes, with the longest rentals running about three hours. Subscriptions range from annual to just 24 hours, with rental fees of EUR 4 to 7 per half-hour.

The busiest time for the vehicles is the end of workdays. As almost six in ten Parisians do not own a car, most drivers reserve a car up to 24 hours in advance for a one-way trip inside the city center from one charging station to another, receiving confirmation of payment via mobile phone afterwards. Seven in ten of Autolib' drivers are male, and most of them are 25 to 50 years old.

Designed by the Italian vehicle design house Pininfarina, the four-seater Autolib' cars are distinctive because they are unpainted, which reduces their weight and their cost. Each car runs on a lithium metal polymer battery that weighs 300 kilograms and can power the car for 250 kilometres of city driving and 150 kilometres on highways at up to 130 kilometres per hour. A trip all the way across Paris uses only about 15 percent of the charge, and the 220-volt, 16-ampere batteries needs just 10 hours for full charging on average. At any given moment, most of the cars have at least a 70 percent charge.  

The French company Bolloré has a 12-year contract with the City of Paris to provide the cars, the charging stations and all maintenance and operations for Autolib', which is being copied on a smaller scale in several other French cities. Over the 12 years, the company will pay an annual fee of EUR 750 per parking space to help offset the EUR 4 million initial government investment in the project. Paris expects the payments to cover the EUR 50 000 subsidy it provides for each charging station.

Bolloré has said it needs 80 000 subscribers to reach break-even, which it now expects to attain sometime in 2014, years ahead of its original expectations. Autolib also offers Bolloré feedback on its batteries and other electric vehicles, including a 22-seater bus intended to be used at several French tourist destinations like the car-restricted isthmus of Mont Saint-Michel.

“Our test lab is real life,” said Didier Marginèdes, a lead researcher at Bolloré who developed the battery for Autolib' cars. “We have indeed more than 2 000 batteries and cars running every day in any condition, which makes it a unique place for testing batteries, cars and car-sharing service in real life.”