Paris slams brakes on electric car-sharing scheme

A flyer reading "The end of Autolib! Why such a hasty rupture and in what interest?" at an Autolib charging station in Paris last Thursday. Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and Mr Vincent Bollore, head of the Bollore Group, posing with an Autolib car in 2
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and Mr Vincent Bollore, head of the Bollore Group, posing with an Autolib car in 2014. Despite having more than 150,000 subscribers, the car-share service failed to prove economically viable - despite promises by its operator Bollore that once fully deployed it would not cost the city a cent.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A flyer reading "The end of Autolib! Why such a hasty rupture and in what interest?" at an Autolib charging station in Paris last Thursday. Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and Mr Vincent Bollore, head of the Bollore Group, posing with an Autolib car in 2
A flyer reading "The end of Autolib! Why such a hasty rupture and in what interest?" at an Autolib charging station in Paris last Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Officials vote to cancel Autolib contract after city asked to pay millions to cover losses

PARIS • The city of Paris is pulling the plug on an electric car-sharing system once hailed as the future of urban transport, with officials voting to cancel the contract in the face of mounting losses.

The more than 4,000 silver Autolib hatchbacks had become a fixture on the streets of the French capital since the scheme was launched in 2011, with docking stations for the electric vehicles found every few blocks.

But even after winning more than 150,000 subscribers, the system has failed to prove economically viable - despite promises by its operator, the Bollore Group, that once fully deployed it would not cost the city a cent.

Last month, the conglomerate, whose subsidiary BlueSG launched an electric vehicle-sharing scheme in Singapore last December, told officials they would have to pay €46 million (S$73 million) a year for the next five years to cover an expected deficit of €294 million.

Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called the request "preposterous", and lawmakers in Paris and the suburbs participating in the scheme voted on Thursday to cancel the contract immediately instead of letting it run out in 2023 as planned.

Bollore, who made the Autolib cars and says it faces a €60 million bill itself, has said it will now take the city to court.

If Bollore loses the Paris contract, it could raise questions about the viability of car-share programmes that Bollore supplies in several other cities, including Indianapolis and Los Angeles, as well as Singapore.

A spokesman for Bollore said its car-share programmes in other cities were functioning well and continuing to grow.

Autolib subscribers have raved about its ease of use and affordability. Yet each car was used on average just 41/2 times a day in 2016 - the most recent year for which data is available - not enough to cover the costs of maintaining the fleet.

The system also struggled to match supply with demand, since cars picked up in high-traffic areas are often parked where fewer people are looking for them.

The arrival of ride-hailing services like Uber and electric moped rentals in recent years siphoned off users as well.

"People living in urban centres have become multi-modal: They are increasingly switching from one form of transportation to another," said Mr Nicolas Louvet of 6t, a consulting firm specialising in transport.

Paris officials say they have received inquiries from other carmakers who could provide the service without subsidies. Among the companies expressing interest are Renault SA, PSA Group, BMW AG and Daimler AG.

In the meantime, the authorities say, the more than 3,200 docking stations in Paris will be made available to owners of electric cars.

But that is cold comfort for the roughly 250 Autolib employees at risk of losing their jobs.

The company's failure is the latest in a series of transportation headaches for Ms Hidalgo, already taking heat over the bungled change of operator for the city's flagship bike-sharing system Velib, which resulted in a huge shortage of bikes.

Her decision to close off major roads along the Seine river to traffic has also infuriated many drivers, who say she has simply made traffic jams worse.

"There is a major problem with mobility options in Paris," centre-right national government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, tipped as a candidate for mayor in 2020 elections, told Radio Classique.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Paris slams brakes on electric car-sharing scheme'. Print Edition | Subscribe