PARIS Paris launches its first car-sharing project next week with the aim of clearing its traffic-clogged boulevards and delivering what its backers hope will be a major boost for electric vehicles.
The Autolib system builds on the success of the Velib bicycle-sharing service and could provide a shop window for entrepreneur Vincent Bollore and his nascent car battery business.
In a two-month pilot scheme starting October 2, a rounded, ultracompact Bluecar built by Bollore's conglomerate and powered by his alternative lithium-metal-polymer battery can be hired for 30 minutes for 4-8 euros by motorists who pay a 10-euro Autolib membership fee.
"We want to persuade people to shift from the concept of owning a car to that of using a car," Autolib General Manager Morald Chibout told Reuters.
The project, which echoes increasingly popular car clubs such as City Car, gets underway as top automakers test driver enthusiasm for electric cars on a large scale in Europe.
Renault SA and its Japanese sister company Nissan Motor Co, which have invested 4 billion euros in electric vehicles, have begun selling a few such cars ahead of volume production and sales are set to kick off in 2012.
Carlos Ghosn, who leads Renault and Nissan, has said electric cars could account for 10 percent of new car sales by 2020.
Soaring insurance and parking costs have already persuaded 25 percent of French citizens to cut back or give up on using their cars, according to a study published last year by Chronos TNS Sofres.
Under the 235 million euro ($321 million) project, the brainchild of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, the service will debut next week with 66 cars and 33 rental stations across Paris before expanding to 3,000 vehicles and more than 1,000 stations by the end of 2012.
The Bluecar, designed and manufactured exclusively for Bollore by Italian designer Pininfarina, famous for sculpting Ferraris and Maseratis, will have a range of up to 250 km between before a recharge which will take about four hours.
Bollore told journalists on Friday he expected the project to make a profit from its seventh year.
Bollore said his batteries are safer than the lithium-ion batteries used by most of the car industry because they are less prone to overheating. They are also more stable when being charged and discharged.
QUICK AND SIMPLE
Valentine de la Celle, a 30-year-old Parisian mother of two, would seem to be the typical target for the service. She does not own a car, but expects to use the scheme for short trips.
"We are doing building work at home at the moment and to take things to the tip I would have to hire a car, which is difficult," she said. "But the scheme needs to be quick and simple, otherwise people will not use it."
Users will be able to sign up for daily, weekly or annual memberships ranging from 10 euros to 144 euros, with users paying according to the length of time the car is used.
The tiered pricing system is designed to encourage hiring the cars only for short trips, said deputy mayor Annick Lepetit.
"We are not here to compete against traditional car rental businesses," she said.
($1 = 0.733 euro)
(Additional reporting By Lorraine Turner and Gilles Guillaume and Matthias Blamont; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Cowell)