Transforming Mobility in Paris
Fifteen years ago, Paris City Council made a call for viable electric vehicle solutions that could be launched onto the streets of Paris. Industrialist Vincent Bolloré responded with a battery technology that no one had ever worked on before and won the bid to deliver Autolib’, a fleet of zero-emission cars that had the potential to transform mobility in Paris.
Autolib’ has been developed with a polymer metal lithium battery that stemmed from the workshops of Ergué-Gabéric in Bretagne. Before this, the majority of cars all over the world had been functioning with a thermal system.
Since its launch in December 2011, the project has delivered a clean, quiet and accessible transport alternative to millions of busy Parisians. It is admirable for its commitment to long-term prosperity and investment in the future of the city. Autolib’ may also be the birth of a model that can be replicated around the world in the future. We spoke to CEO of the electric car-sharing scheme, Morald Chibout, about the business and its growing success.
“You have to know that the first electric cars were launched only ten years ago. Bolloré is very bold as an entrepreneur, investing €1.5 billion from his own pocket and progressively losing it until he succeeded in developing his project fifteen years later. Today, at Autolib’ we have more than 71,000 subscribers and 28,000 of them are annual subscriptions, this is huge for such a project. We even reached 1,500,000 locations in the last few weeks. Since the launch in December 2011, it has been a real success, in a commercial but also mostly technological sense, since we managed to prove that the polymer metal lithium battery actually works — more than 1,500,000 people trusted us, rented the car and used it with its battery, onboard electronics and geolocalisation system.”
“For the initial induction, users have direct contact with an advisor and five minutes later you have your subscription card in hand, and you can leave with a car. Our locations system allows you to book both your car and your place. This is really successful, especially on the new Internet version. You just need to book them at least 30 minutes before you need them. This system works 24/7, which is extraordinary and very convenient in a crowded city like Paris. The station ‘recognises’ each car, thanks to its embedded intelligence. No need to worry about finding a place to park anymore. “Simplicity is both in your first steps with the brand and in the way you can use the location system and the car itself. I believe that a good product can be hard to build but easy to understand, the client should not feel any technical constraint.”
Like with any project that is the first of its kind, there were a few initial teething problems while users became accustomed to the innovation. For example, because 99% of existing cars are still six-speed cars, people sometimes feel a sense of apprehension when faced with an Autolib’ vehicle.
Bolloré and his team pre-empted this and decided that with such a complex technological grounding, every other aspect of Autolib’ must ooze simplicity. The reason why the exterior is simple is above all a design choice, and applying several layers of paint on it would have been in contradiction with their ecological vision. The car is a ‘body-in-white’ structure, without a single layer of paint. Simplicity, a sense of convenience and usability are also translated into the overall design of the vehicle.
“We had some troubles at first but these were mostly technical problems about how to use the car, because the electric car was still quite new last year. We saw some broken car bumpers, met people that couldn’t open or close the car correctly; we even found a cat that was locked into a car. These are amusing anecdotes, but all in the past now. It wasn’t the information system that caused problems — it was the car itself that was sometimes complicated for the clients. But today, they need less than thirty seconds to leave a parking station.
“What is captivating is the social and behavioural shift, going from a possession analysis to an analysis of use. French people are really close to their car, in the same way they are close to their house. They are a social representation and a means of expression for an individual. This concept of location is actually a true behavioural revolution. You do not own your car anymore, you rent it, you share it with other people but you can still have it anytime you need it.
“Clients like the way you can be part of the project, and the way you can easily move in Paris. What they love the most is the parking reservation system. You can easily go shopping at Faubourg Saint-Antoine by reserving your car 30 minutes in advance, and then coming back home and parking your car in the closest station. There will always be a place for your car.”
This technological revolution that started with a battery and ended with launching an eco-friendly car is radically transforming the way people consider mobility and move around in the city. The success of Autolib’ is due to Bollore’s ability to look forward and his approach to having a fully integrated project in order to keep control over it and avoid any dependence on other companies. Having an industrial background, Autolib’ doesn’t only develop the battery but also manufactures the other parts of the vehicles. This is undoubtedly a key part of the business’ achievements so far and will contribute to its success in the future.
“We have received interest from the five continents, America, Asia, Africa etc. Everybody was thinking about this project, but nobody had ever dared to launch it! In the future, we want to develop the model abroad. At the moment, our business model is based on Autolib’ with the location and subscription system. It is fully viable: our president used to think it would break even in 2018 but now he claims that it will actually achieve it by the end of 2014 — three years ahead of time, due to its commercial success. Now that we’ve proved it is a viable model with its success in Paris, the idea is to launch it in other European and international capital cities. We are able to sell the car; the control system that is made by one of our subsidiaries, IER; and the information system is made by another of our subsidiaries, Polyconseil. We can also provide training for the call centres and management ambassadors.
“But at the same time we want to focus on developing our battery and keeping it at the core of our business. For us it’s all about energy storage, we are still working on the battery in order to improve the performance of our cars. Energy is a limited and vulnerable good; the proof is in the growing wind energy and alternative energy sector. The challenge is how to store energy. Once the storage problem is solved, the second challenge is to know how to re-inject it into the supply network. Some professions don’t welcome a disruption in the energy market. For example, primary health insurance funds are thinking about hospital at home programmes, as it would be economic for them but such an idea cannot be created overnight. Yet our batteries are reactive to the nanosecond, and can easily connect EDF’s grid power to your network, which would be relevant for this kind of application. Imagine, we could collect energy during the day with photovoltaics, store it in our batteries and then light up the streets at night.”
Exercising imagination is what triggered Autolib’, 15 years ago, and is evidently what is leading it into the future. The ambition and innovative thinking has created a business model that has the potential to transform city transport across the globe.