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The push for electric cars

Paris has found success with its electric car-share scheme Autolib’. How France encouraging the switch to electric?

By Ken Seaton

WITH 29,500 subscribers, the Paris electric car-share scheme Autolib’ has seen an unexpected success that has prompted other cities – including Indianapolis in the US, Lyon and Bordeaux – to sign up for their own versions of the no-noise, no pollution, green vehicles.

Introduced to cut the number of cars and pollution in the capital’s streets, Autolib’ has grown since its launch in December 2011 into a Paris-wide personal transport system that this year will have 3,000 vehicles on 1,100 stations in Paris and 46 surrounding communes.

While Autolib’s success has led to complaints that the stations often have no cars, that the vehicles can have mechanical faults and that they have not been properly cleaned it has also played its role in the reduction in airborne pollution in the capital over the past 10 years.

It is just one of a number of schemes that France is championing as it looks to electric vehicles to end its dependence on fossil fuel imports and the resulting pollution. Figures from the environmental agency Ademe show car-sharing can replace up to eight private vehicles and thus can cut carbon emissions by 1.2 tonnes per user per year. It can also save money as running a petrol car for 15,000km costs €6,150 a year.

Companies such as Renault, Peugeot, Citroën and Bolloré – manufacturer of the Autolib’ Bluecar – are investing heavily in electric technology, which they see as the car of the future. Renault especially, with partner Nissan, is investing €4billion in electric vehicles including the Zoé, Fluence ZE, Kangoo ZE and Twizy.

Average electric vehicles have a range of around 100-120km and this makes them ideal for most journeys as 85% of people drive less than 60km per day. But running out of charge is still the major fear for drivers and France is investing in recharging stations where vehicles can get 80% of full charge in around 30 minutes to allow cross-country travel.
Paris has 735 stations with several charging bornes on each and France has about 5,000 recharging stations today and targets of 75,000 by 2015 and 400,000 by 2020. Funds of up to €50million have been allocated to give communes 50% funding for the cost of borne installation, with prices ranging up to €40,000 each.

Nice – the first major city to introduce electric “auto-partage” cars, in February 2011 – says it will have 110 Autobleue stations and 550 bornes by 2016. Each has three bornes for permanent cars and two to charge other electric vehicles and it will add other standalone charging units across the city, to create around 700 sites.

Despite all this investment, it is all but impossible for France to turn 100% electric as the numbers make it unrealistic: If just 10 million people switched to electric vehicles and needed to charge them each night it would require almost all of the power generated in France. Substantial transport change will need to go hand-in-hand with changes to the national grid.

How does it work?
Electric vehicles date back to the middle of the 19th century and the first car to top 100kph was the Belgian-made Jamais Contente, a shell-shaped electric car by Camille Jenatzy in 1899. Modern electric cars have a large battery to store energy, a DC motor to drive it and battery recharging working through recharging points or a regenerative braking system. Some cars have ordinary household plugs to connect to mains electricity to charge up, others (including those at the bornes or charging stations) use a heavy-duty super-charger. The ordinary household plug can charge the battery in under 10 hours, the super-charger gives 80% of charge in 30 minutes.
However, the European Commission has just agreed a new standard for charging units that is different from that used in France – so all public charging stations may need to be changed, at vast expense.

What does it cost?
Take the Renault Zoé, launched earlier this year and designed as an all-electric model. It costs €20,700 but the government gives a money-off bonus of €7,000 (to a maximum 30% of purchase price) for electric car purchases, bringing the price down to €13,700 incl. VAT. Renault rents owners the batteries at €79 a month on top and, if wanted, there is a Wallbox charging unit at €750.
Other manufacturers, such as Renault partner Nissan, include the battery in the price – its new Leaf is priced from €28,990 after the bonus has been subtracted.
Peugeot’s iOn, used by the Nice Autobleue, is €22,500 after the bonus is deducted (in most cases the deduction is done by the selling garage).
Bolloré has its Bluecar at €12,000 after the bonus is deducted but you will probably need a recharging cable at €700 and, if you have a garage, a dedicated recharging point at €995 (recharges in eight hours at 16A or four hours at 32A). A full charge will cost less than €2.
Some regions offer their own aid for buyers: Alsace, Lorraine, Poitou-Charentes and Rennes Metropole, offer an extra bonus on top of the government aid (€8,000 for Poitou-Charentes); others offer a free or cheaper carte grise. Nice offers free parking for electric vehicles in its own car parks.
Insurance is 30% cheaper at Axa and may go up to 40% elsewhere – and servicing costs are up to 20% less than a petrol vehicle.

How far can you go?
Again taking the new Renault Zoé, it has a standard test range of 210km – but like mpg figures this depends on usage. It will cover 100-150km depending on driving style and conditions. It can use both charging station and household power points to recharge the battery in between 30 minutes and nine hours. Range is affected by many things such as hills, use of air-conditioning/heating etc.

Who makes them?
Renault, Peugeot and Citroën all make their own ranges of electric vehicles – with Bolloré now offering its Bluecar (built in Brittany, just outside Quimper) for private purchase. Renault leads the way and up to the end of October 2012 had put 16,600 electric vehicles on the road in Europe – with 4,566 in France (including 1,999 Twizys) – and has corporate orders for more than 17,000 electric vehicles over the next three years, including 15,000 Kangoo ZE vans.
BMW is launching a new electric car, the i3, later this year and will later launch the i8 Spyder. The i3 is, like the Renault Zoé and Nissan Leaf, built from scratch as an electric car that is economic and eco-friendly.
Volkswagen, too, is following suit with the Yorkshire-sounding e-up! which has a 160km range and 130kph top speed. German price is €26,900.

What is the future?
While overall car sales in 2012 fell 13.9%, Renault No2 Carlos Tavares said it is aiming for 36,000 sales this year – double last year’s total. Even then electric vehicles will still only make up 1% of the French market.
At the luxury end, sales are quite buoyant with American manufacturer Tesla’s Model S a status symbol for the savvy rich, especially with its 265mile range and 133mph top speed. Tesla also plans a 90-second charger.
Elsewhere, performance is improving and former UK science minister and racing driver Paul Drayson smashed the world electric land speed record when he hit 204.2mph – 327kph – in his DraysonB12 69/EV electric Le Mans Prototype.
Now the FIA road race authorities are planning an electric GP series with races in cities including London, Rome, Los Angeles and Beijing in 2014. Back at Le Mans, Nissan is to race its 300kph ZEOD RC in next year’s 24-hour race.

How does it add up?
Initially, electric vehicles look rather good: there are no hydrocarbon emissions, no smoke and no diesel particulates; they do not consume power while slowing down, the batteries recharge under braking and while slowing; the motor is practically unbreakable and the running costs are minimal (no oil change etc).
As for the way it drives: it is silent, starts quickly and the motor gives instant power and never bogs down.
Although the vehicles have no emissions there are, however, plenty while the components are being manufactured, especially the battery. In addition, power comes from nuclear power, unless owners have solar panels.
Norwegian researchers said the whole-life environmental benefit was just 14% better than petrol as the emissions were moved back down the process – but BMW said its new i3 had one-third less global warming potential than a fossil fuel car.

How does it drive?
I live in Nice and have used the Autobleue several times. It has a one-off registration fee of €26 and then different price levels, with a four-hour morning rate of €21, the same for five hours in the evening, and a 10-hour all-day booking costing €45. Pay by the hour at €8.50. I use it most often for trips to the airport to pick up family and luggage with the hourly rate being less than the €6 per person each-way bus ticket.

The Peugeot iOn cars are located all over Nice along with Citroën Berlingo vans but, unlike the Paris Autolib’, must be returned to the same site. Cars are generally in good condition – especially the interior – but the exterior can bear the brunt of French parking habits.

Operated with an electronic key card that is held against the window, the car can be up and moving in seconds once the charger is stowed back in the borne. That’s if you know the motor is running... as it is totally silent and there is nothing but a ‘Ready’ light on the dashboard to tell you. Users have even phoned the Autobleue office to say the car is not working...

It accelerates very quickly and makes no noise as it passes – sometimes dangerously so, as pedestrians wander into the road in front of you. On the move there is no difference from an ordinary automatic.

The cars have an indicator of how many kilometres of charge is left and this is rarely more than 110km – as soon as you start moving it starts dropping. However, we took a friend to a viewpoint at 1,500m in the hills behind Nice and over the 40km journey the remaining charge meter fell to just 9km before we stopped for a coffee. The coffee shop owner offered to let me charge the car but the cable would not stretch far enough. We headed back downhill and the car recharged as we went.

Summing up, Autobleue saves us from needing a car that would sit idle for most of the week.

Photo:Mairie de Paris/Jean-Baptiste Gurliat

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