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Autolib’ Electric Carsharing Program

By Ben Holland

autolib websiteThis post is the first in a series of profiles on innovative programs advancing the future of electric mobility. These programs and others will be featured in the upcoming EV City Casebook, set to be published in September of 2014.

How Autolib’ is cracking the Code to Electric Carsharing One Ride at a Time

Your average American driver knows very little, or nothing, about electric cars. They’re not reading EV blogs, they’re not inquiring LEAF owners at stop lights, and they’re not making note of the new charging station installed at the local mall.

Most of us who follow the electric vehicle industry acknowledge that insufficient consumer awareness remains a critical barrier to adoption. Everyone wants the automakers to invest much more in compelling advertising campaigns, but until recently we’ve learned to accept the industry’s apprehension. For this reason, ride-and-drives, charging station unveilings, and consumer education campaigns have become the standard methods for raising awareness.

We all want to see more people behind the wheels of electric cars, but we need to recognize that some of these strategies, while necessary, are insufficient. For instance, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a charging station is a fantastic method for engaging and informing existing EV owners and those who are already considering a purchase. But we need to employ other creative measures that increase the likelihood that an unconverted driver will interface with an electric vehicle—EV access over infrastructure access.

The Rise of Carsharing

Electric vehicle stakeholders may do well to explore opportunities to capitalize on the rise of carsharing. In North America, carsharing membership grew 24.1 percent in the US and 53.4 percent in Canada between 2012 and 2013—reaching a total of 1 million members. That number is projected to grow to 4.4 million by 2016. While these are still relatively small numbers, they illustrate a business that was once relegated to underfunded non-profits is turning into a real industry.

On the surface, carsharing and electrification seem like an ideal fit. Carsharing thrives in cities where vehicle ownership might be unnecessary, expensive, or inconvenient. Trips tend to be short and contained within a relatively tight boundary—seemingly great conditions for electric vehicles. And for these reasons, a few carsharing companies have made efforts to incorporate electric vehicles into their fleets. Perhaps the most well known carsharing company, Zipcar recently launched a pilot of approximately 25 electric vehicles in Chicago, and a handful of EVs in cities like San Francisco and Portland. Likewise, Car2Go offers electric vehicles in many of its markets but also operates a fully electric program in San Diego—with over 300 EVs in operation.

The key difference between the two companies is that Zipcar is a round-trip or A-to-A operation—meaning, you pick up and return your vehicle to the same location. Conversely, Car2Go offers A-to-B, or point-to-point, mobility, enabling members to leave their vehicles practically anywhere they wish. Bridging these two models, Autolib’ is a service unlike any other, with the potential to unlock the full value of electric carsharing.

An Exemplary Public-Private Partnership

Launched in December of 2011, Autolib’ is an all-electric carsharing program formed by the City of Paris and Bolloré, a French holding company and supplier of a small, 160-mile range EV called the “Bluecar.” The service consists of 2,200 cars and 4,300 charging stations deployed throughout Paris. In little over two years, approximately 120,000 unique users have logged a total of 3.5 million rentals and 18 million miles—all within a 40 square mile city. Assuming that many of the drivers had never been in an electric car before, these are very significant numbers.

Autolib’ combines a few familiar elements of carsharing services like Car2Go and Zipcar to create something unique. Like Car2Go, the service offers point-to-point parking throughout Paris; but to ensure that cars are always charged at the end of their sessions, they’ve secured designated parking spaces, each of which are equipped with a charging station. While Zipcar acquires many of its spaces from private parking entities, Bolloré has secured over 4,300 city-owned parking spaces, in highly accessible curbside and off-street locations. This is due in large part to the fact that the City of Paris has made its downtown parking available in a way that few US cities have done to date.

To help facilitate the deployment of charging infrastructure, the City of Paris invested €35 million and designated a number of parking spaces for Autolib’. In return, Bolloré provides the vehicles and pays back the city’s investment with subscription revenues and a parking space leasing arrangement. At the time of Autolib’s launch, Bolloré expected to pay back the city by 2018, but the success of the program will enable them to do so in nearly half the time.

“Autolib’ has exceeded our expectations in terms of user acceptance which has a direct impact on our business plan; if the trend continues, we will reach the breakeven point by 2015, that is three years ahead of schedule,” says Morald Chibout, Director of Autolib’.

Here in the US, much of the infrastructure deployed has been subsidized through grants, with neither an intended return on investment nor a real sense of what utilization to expect of the charging stations. In fact, many of the stations deployed across our country offer free electricity; and while some of those are seeing significant use (particularly on the West Coast), many more sit idle for one tragically ignored reality—about 80% of all EV charging takes place as the driver’s home. In contrast, Autolib’ ensures high utilization of its assets by giving its fleet of vehicles priority charging but also enabling the general public to use the stations when available.

For the above reasons, US cities interested in encouraging use of electric vehicles should take a closer look at the Autolib’ model. By forming a simple financial arrangement and staging charging assets where they’re guaranteed usage by a fleet, the City of Paris and Bolloré, have cracked the code for a true business case that has failed to emerge elsewhere.

Prioritizing exposure and experience

There are countless city electrification efforts around the US, and many have focused on similar strategies for increasing adoption. Unfortunately, these strategies are too often treated as silos—particularly infrastructure deployment. We install a charging station, cut a ribbon, and walk away hoping the cars will come. But this isn’t Field of Dreams. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come to that particular location. Instead of resting on this assumption, cities need to employ methods that will directly increase the use of electric vehicles. Of course, cities can’t give away cars, but they can ensure access to the technology. Autolib’ presents a model that is proven to work.

“Autolib’ has contributed to the uptake of EVs in Paris area by offering high visibility and ‘normalizing’ the use of the technology,” says Véronique Haché-Aguilar from Autolib’ Métropole Paris (Public Consortium including the City of Paris and surrounding cities). “Like biking and public transportation before them, Autolib’ vehicles are now part of the Parisian landscape and fully integrated within our overall strategy for reducing pollution, CO2, particulate emissions.”

Each year, Paris welcomes approximately 27 million visitors. Many of those visitors have the potential to experience or, at the very least, witness the use of an electric vehicle. This could go a long, long way toward assimilating car owners to a still fairly nascent technology.

Only a handful of US cities may be able to commit to the same level of investment as Autolib’, but there appear to be several opportunities for a more integrative approach to sustainable mobility. New York City, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.—these are all cities that host successful carsharing programs, have extensive charging networks, and attract countless visitors a year. But it’s another, less obvious city that’s taking the lead in a whole systems approach— Indianapolis.

This year, Bolloré will launch a program much like Autolib’ in Indianapolis, starting with 500 EVs and 1200 charging stations.

Image Credit: Autolib’

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