PARIS - A fleet of little silver cars in Paris is showcasing France's gamble on electric vehicle technology in a project that backers say is even helping to narrow the capital's social divide.
Modeled on the Velib bike-sharing program, Autolib has won 70,000 clients since its launch in late 2011. Drivers pick up one of the electric cars at a recharging bay, make their journey and leave it at another for other Parisians to use.
Conservatives intially attacked Autolib as a vanity project of the Socialists who control the Paris city hall, but have toned down their criticism as the scheme's popularity has grown.
Visiting mayors from San Francisco and Seoul have test driven the French-built mini cars which are styled in Italy. But Greens fear the 1,800-strong fleet may be drawing Parisians away
from public transport rather than from their gas and diesel-powered cars, and have demanded an audit of the scheme.
Autolib's backers make some bold claims. The project, they say, is breaking down social and physical barriers between the two million inhabitants of affluent central Paris and the other
eight million who live in the "banlieues", the often neglected high-rise suburbs outside the "peripherique" ring road.
"There was a time when Parisians thought the banlieues were where they sent their rubbish and built council blocks or cemeteries," Paris transport councillor Julien Bargeton said.
"That relationship is changing, and Autolib shows that," he told Reuters, estimating that about a third of all trips in the electric cars take place between Paris and its outskirts.
Such assertions are hard to prove statistically. There is no comprehensive study on travel between central Paris and the outskirts to show how the proportion of Autolib trips compares with those made by public transport or conventional car.
But Autolib, which is bigger than similar schemes in the German cities of Berlin and Stuttgart, is undeniably a shop window for French billionaire Vincent Bollore.
His Bollore group has invested two billion euros in electric vehicle technology which still accounts for a tiny proportion of car sales worldwide.
The four-seat mini sedans, styled by Ferrari- and Maserati-designer Pininfarina, have become a familiar sight parked in bays along the streets of Paris. For Bollore, the project is an opportunity to show off the cars and win export orders for their lithium-metal-polymer battery
This year the company plans to launch the system in two other French cities, Bordeaux and Lyon, and list part of its electric-car division on the Paris bourse.
A BIT CRAZY
Electric car development is a risky financial bet that Bollore is willing to take. "This is a family-owned group. If we had other major shareholders we would have never been able to do
that, it's a bit crazy," said Julien Varin, communications director for Autolib at Bollore.
"We have got visits from mayors from all over the world, journalists from Asian countries came over, the same from Latin American countries. They look at it as a way to deal with pollution in their cities."
While petrol-electric hybrids sell well, purely battery-powered cars have yet to take off internationally. In the United States, they accounted for just 0.1 percent of sales
last year. That proportion is higher in Norway at 3 percent of car sales in February, but this system relies on big public subsidies.
Exhaust pollution can be cut in countries such as Norway that has abundant hydro electricity, but elsewhere battery cars need to be recharged with power often produced by burning fossil
fuels. France relies heavily on nuclear power, itself environmentally controversial.
Nevertheless, France's biggest auto groups Renault and Peugeot Citroen are pushing the technology along with Bollore, plus others such as Japan's Mitsubishi and Tesla Motors of the U.S.
Renault and its Japanese ally Nissan have bet billions of euros on the four-wheeled Twizy electric scooter and the mass-market Zoe.
AN "OLD PEOPLE" THING
By speeding up installation of thousands of charging points around Paris, Autolib is giving hope to manufacturers who say a dearth of public electric car chargers is holding back the market.
"With Velib, Twizy and Autolib, various things have gone in the right direction in France," said Francois Bellanger, head of the Transit-City urban mobility think tank. "Everything has contributed to this new ecosystem: the drive to be more energy-efficient, the financial crisis and the fact that owning a car is becoming an 'old people' thing."
Autolib users swipe their leather-cased plastic paycard on a car's windscreen, hop in, set the GPS (sat nav) for the nearest bay to their destination and drive off.
Charges are modest. An annual subscription costs 144 euros ($190) and users pay 5 euros per half-hour, far less than a taxi ride. Repair costs are capped for drivers who crash the cars.
The scheme is part of the Socialists' drive to win an unprecedented third term in Paris municipal elections next year.
Opposition conservatives mocked the scheme as a grandiose vanity project when it was launched. However, their lead candidate for the 2014 polls, former environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, has avoided criticising the majority privately funded scheme.
It costs Bollore 50 million euros a year to run Autolib, while the city of Paris has invested 35 million euros in the charging points.
TRAIN FOR LOSERS?
Critics say the scheme has done little to free up Paris's already traffic-clogged boulevards, with many of its users now taking an Autolib instead of using public transport.
"It's an illusion to think that by providing more cars you can reduce traffic," said Bellanger of Transit-City.
The Greens, who voted against Autolib while remaining part of Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's majority, have asked for an audit on the scheme's finances and its impact on traffic.
"We remain very sceptical on Autolib," said Denis Baupin, Green MP for Paris and transport councillor until last year.
Bargeton, his successor at Paris City Hall, responds that a third of Autolib users who own cars say they will sell or won't replace them when they go to the scrapyard.
Suburban transport links in Paris largely radiate from the center, and banlieue residents often complain of difficulties in moving from one outer district to another. But in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, scene of racial riots eight years ago, one mayor says Autolib is helping his constituents to do just that.
"I've just finished a series of neighbourhood meetings, everyone was talking to me about it," said Claude Capillon, mayor of Rosny-sous-Bois municipality. "And you cannot help noticing that there has been very little vandalism, none in Rosny, not even a cable slashed."
Rosny pays just 7,000 euros per year over five years to build and maintain its six Autolib stations, the rest being heavily subsidised by the region.
After the riots erupted in 2005, former President Nicolas Sarkozy promised a "Marshall Plan" to integrate the fringes with the centre, partly by improving transport links thanks to a new "Grand Paris Express" automatic metro network.
But the economic crisis has delayed the 30 billion euro project, and the Autolib cars are an alternative to the congested and tired RER suburban train network for young workers who cannot always afford to buy a car.
"It's a dream to be able to stop using the bloody RER," said a young driver in Rosny who gave his name only as Habib. "The cars are clean, you can go out with friends until late and not look like a loser taking the train back to your suburb."
Benjamin Marsiglia, 28, owner of a sports consultancy firm, said the silent Autolib cars were surprisingly responsive to drive and the most practical way of getting around the city.
"I sold my car when I moved to central Paris. I love nice cars, but in Paris it would get scratched every 2 minutes. ... And it's not really practical to take the metro with the big suitcase I have today," he said before catching a long-distance train at the Gare du Nord terminus.
Bollore has said it expects to announce a similar deal with a major city outside France this year, but Varin declined to say which and noted it was early days for a project which has run into some unexpected problems.
"We learnt all sorts of lessons already - things like how to deal with pigeon droppings between May and July, when we have to refill 2,000 wind-screen fluid reservoirs a day," he said.