Autolib’ – Paris bets big on new carshare technology

A sustainable transport system is a system of choices – quite the opposite in many ways of the old all-car no-choice model that all too often spends most of its time in taking up scarce space but not moving. With this very much in view, the City of Paris has just stepped up to the plate and is now in the process of bringing into service what they propose will be a new link in the chain of sustainable transport options: a carsharing system not quite like any other. No less than three thousand cars to come on line in shared service in just nine months – and electric cars at that – working out of 1000 to 1200 stations spotted over not only the central city but a number of surrounding communities as well. The biggest and most daring carshare bet of all time.

Below you will find a machine translation of an article prepared for World Streets by Sylvain Marty, director of the much-awaited Autolib’ program at the City of Paris. (The full original text is available in French here.) Autolib’ is a seductive idea, whose oldest historical antecedent was the excellent Witkar project of the mid seventies in Amsterdam which even today looks like a great try.

World Streets very much hope that Autolib’ will succeed. There are four critical areas in which we in particular wish them great good luck:

1. The vehicle: We hope that the vehicle they have chosen will do the job, both in terms of comfort, safety and reliability, and also when it comes to cost, both purchase and overall operating costs.

2. The network/service package: The biggest jump that Autolib is taking is not just the vehicle but above all the concept of record-setting, very large scale one-way carsharing, which with just a couple of recent exceptions that are still work in process (Ulm Germany and Austin Texas) have not been the rule of successful carsharing in the more than one thousand places in which these service are available today in various parts of the world. (World Streets will shortly be featuring an analytic piece on successful carsharing that will appear in these pages).

3. The market: Off the top of our heads we would guess that this is going to be the least of their problems, though it is predicated on three unbudgeable factors: vehicle reliability: a network package that really works (i.e., makes sure that there are cars where and when you need them, and available parking slots where you wish to leave them off); and the costs of service to the client.

4. Democracy: Will Autolib’ turn out to be a democratic transport system which is open to and used by all layers of society and all the communities and sections of Paris and its diversified and unequal region, including the poorest and most needful?

And finally there is a matter which is of bottom line importance to World Streets and our readers –namely: is Autolib’ going to prove a strong partner in the move from unsustainable transport (i.e., massive car dependence and all that goes with it) to something far better?

What we have learned over these last years is that sustainable mobility is not one thing but a chain of many parts, links, and that its performance and strength depends on not only the viability of the individual links – which must be many and complementary — but also the way they link and work together. Will Autolib’ draw off a public who otherwise would have been using the city’s already high quality system of public transport, bikes, taxis or walking? Or will it prove to be a key link in the strong chain, reinforcing the entire “bouquet” of services because it offers one more viable and complementary new mobility option.

Let’s keep our eyes on Paris and wish them great good luck in this large and important project that will soon be on the city’s streets.

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Autolib’ – Ready to roll on the streets of Paris

– Sylvain Marty, Directeur du Syndicat Mixte Autolib’. City of Paris, 18 Dec. 2010
Note: this is a lightly edited machine translation.

1 / In the beginning

The success of the hugely popular Vélib’ public bike service from its inauguration in July 2007 opened up a new space for mobility between the traditional public transport (metro, regional rail, trams, buses) and private modes of travel (car, bike or walking staff walk): there is now room for “individual transport”. Certainly, this new mobility family could also group taxi services and car-sharing that have been around longer; but the former are insufficient in number to radically change the Paris region, and the latter struggling to reach maturity in France.

Autolib’ claims by name a direct link with these new forms of urban mobility. The concept is very similar to Vélib’: it would make available to users of electric vehicles accessible self-service and “direct evidence” that is to say by offering the option of filing the vehicle at a station different from where it was borrowed.

The parallel with Vélib’ does not apply absolutely however, for purposes which are by nature very different: Vélib’ is widely used for commuting, which generates the transition effects for commuters very restrictive regulation. Autolib’ speaks about to travel more casual, private or professional, and of short duration.

2 / Designed for the metropolis

The ambition of the Mayor of Paris in initiating the concept was to propose a mobility solution covering a coherent territory in terms of density and variety of land use and travel needs. 80 municipalities of the dense heart of the city area have been consulted to participate. 41 of them and the Ile-de-France have decided to join together in a public institution called “Joint Association Autolib’ “, to launch the consultation with private companies. They will number fifty in a few weeks.

Already, the member municipalities represent a pool of almost 4 million inhabitants.

Preliminary studies have determined that a design service to around 3,000 vehicles for the start was good. These 3000 cars will be distributed in 1000 to 1 200 stations with an average of 6 vehicle parking points. The very large dispersion of the stations strengthens the network dimension and creates a close relationship with users.

3 / Goals – Economic, social and environmental

The aim of Autolib’ is often summarized in terms of its environmental benefits, primarily the question of choice for electric vehicles in terms of reduced emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. It should first be recalled that the main environmental benefits of the project are expected both in terms of changing mobility patterns of users on the gains arising from the change of engine. Also, do not limit the environmental benefits of electric vehicles that reduce emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. The first source of annoyance reported in opinion surveys in urban areas is the noise, and the benefits of electric vehicles is that it is perfectly quiet.

The second goal of Autolib’ is to increase the mobility of Parisians who do not have access to a private vehicle, usually for economic reasons. Indeed, we often parking problems for the low rate of car ownership in urban center. But in reality, the scarcity of parking selects the owners of private vehicles by the income by increasing the overall cost of owning and operating a vehicle lot. Households who cannot do without a private vehicle (e.g. night workers) are more vulnerable economically to this increase parking.

The average cost of owning a private vehicle and is considered among the studies around 500 € per month. Households who cannot spend such a budget to the automobile are often forced to abandon a number of trips for which there is not necessarily an alternative. Autolib’ will be a relevant solution for these trips.

4 / The missing link in the “new mobility bouquet”

Any attempt to design a system such as Autolib’ disregarding the rich fabric of the city’s existing modes of transport is purely illusory. With 3,000 vehicles in service, Autolib’ is not able to solve the transportation problems faced by Parisians and cannot respond to issues of mass displacement for which public transit is the only appropriate response. Autolib’ can however be a complement in the panorama already provided the Paris Transport system: public transport, taxis, car sharing, bicycles and modes, etc..

However, as the newest and probably one of the most innovative and most technological Autolib’ has an important role to play in the articulation of the different modes of transport. By changing the traditional boundary between individual movement and transport, Autolib’ will bring a new fluidity in the design of mobility. In this sense, Autolib’ must not only be a new mode of transport performance, but also one that helps to rethink the services provided to users of other modes of transport. It is unthinkable that in time, operators are unable to agree on a “unified ticket” for mobility in the city regardless of the chosen mobility solution.

The members of the Union and the Region have strongly emphasized in the constitution phase of the specifications on the need not to think Autolib’ isolation but place it in the overall “mobility package” now in place.

5/ Un complex project at the crossroads of industrial strategies of carmakers and transport services.

Autolib’ does not only upset the landscape of public transport policies. It challenges the traditional strategy of large automobile companies, or rather it challenges the deep sociological model of the car.

This project impacts in two ways on the activity of car manufacturers:

– Car-sharing challenges the traditional ownership and operational model that drives the industry’ strategies and offerings
– The choice of the electric vehicle overturns the distribution of value in the production chain of the vehicle: tomorrow -given that the economic heart of the industry in the future will not be the engine but the battery. And the industrial groups who have mastered the battery problem are not necessarily the big car manufacturers who today benefit from their technological advance on the engines.

The challenge for the western automotive industry is very simple: they must reform their strategic positioning – or otherwise risk to be overtaken by new entrants or by Asian manufacturers, mainly Chinese and Indians who dream of gaining their advantage by starting with the almost entirely “white sheet” of electric vehicles. Without forgetting the operators of transport services who lie in ambush to achieve a new mobility system, and in the process relegate the role of the automobile industry as just one more provider and enabler of these new services.

Not surprising therefore to find in candidates for Autolib’ : two public transport operators RATP-SNCF, grouped on one side with Avis and Vinci as partners, with Veolia on the other), a new entrant (Bolloré) and ADA car rental company, and also a subsidiary of the G7 group, the city’s most important operator of taxis.

6 / An economic model to invent

There is no example, to scale Autolib’ comparable services. The closest experience took place in Singapore until 2008 with the initiative Diracc Honda and Ulm in Germany for a little over a year with Daimler CAR2GO. In both cases, the vehicles are used in combustion engine and the service has only about 200 vehicles, but the principle of direct evidence has been withheld. The results are encouraging, especially in Ulm, where success is very large with over 10% of the population is enrolled in the service.

The level of vandalism seen in Paris Vélib’ is often cited as an obstacle to the development of Autolib’ due to the constraint that it has on the economic equilibrium of the delegation of public service. The situation is not really replicable, and effective means of protection exist on cars while they are pretty ridiculous on the bikes. On the other hand, it must ask why such a high level of vandalism while other comparable systems in the Paris region or province does not have the same difficulties.

The success of the service and its economic viability depends mainly on the number of subscriptions and the rate of vehicle use. Surveys conducted before starting the project allow some enthusiasm, but we must remain cautious about the ability of respondents to project themselves into a mode of transport they do not know. Mesh quality stations, the level of service provided and vehicle performance will be key factors for the success of this project.

7 / Tough competition before the final partner choice

The competition, which began in February 2010 led to the December 16, 2010 election with the selection of the Bolloré public service package.

The three competing bids were of excellent standard, but that Bolloré has distinguished itself by providing a more humane approach of service, based on the presence of more than 800 agents to serve this project.

With lower rates, around 12 € a month for the annual plan and 5 € for the first half hour of use (4 € for the 2nd, 6 € for the 3rd), Bolloré has widely opened the service to families (10% discount on subscription) or youth will not be penalized compared to other users.

Bolloré has also agreed to take greater risks by investing € 50 million directly into capital. The group’s total investment exceeds € 100 million on a project expected to generate over a billion in sales in 12 years.

Autolib’ is a reality — in nine months it will be in service, and in the words of the Mayor of Paris, it will create a “mobility revolution” of the XXI century.

– Sylvain Marty, Director of the Syndicat Mixte Autolib’
Paris. 18 December 2011

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Some further references:

* Original article for World Streets as it appeared in French. –

* Announcement from the City of Paris –

* Short video introducing Autolib’:

* Witkar –

* Car2Go in Austin –

* Car2Go in Ulm:

4 thoughts on “Autolib’ – Paris bets big on new carshare technology

  1. I am happy about this but would be excited if: 1 – The vehicles ran on renewable energy (i.e. only sustainable power was purchased for the charging station use — as it is this is the largest nuclear fleet outside of the U.S. Navy); 2 – There was no exaggeration about the noise benefits (in a sense this both low, as tyre noise is significant at higher speeds, and high, as slowly moving, very quiet EVs have issues with persons with hearing problems or indeed in comparison to other motor vehicles; 3 – If speed limiters focused on 30km/h zones were developed, at least for carshare, taxis and delivery trucks. It would also be good to know more about battery disposal and if presumably a new model will have windscreen airbags as soon as they are available.

    The big “if” of course is how many vehicles will not be purchased due to this scheme. There also does not seem to be any classic car rental component (e.g. for a special price). Finally, what will happen to the other car share operators, will they, for example if they also start using EVs, be able to use the same charging stations just as all combustion engine vehicles use their version of energy stations? Or will there be unoccupied stations which are in the wrong place at the wrong time, an unintentional inspiration from Vélib’?

  2. Paris is indeed betting big on Autolib. Much bigger than Velib for 3 reasons:
    – Politically – because the system is not going to be indirectly subsidized by advertising;
    – Operationally – because they are bringing on line a lot of new technology quite rapidly and
    – Policy – because it’s not clear (to me at least) that cars, even electric cars, will have some transformative effect than bicycles have. But I’d love to be proven wrong on all accounts.

    Some specific reactions to Eric’s posting: When it was first proposed Autolib was indeed a significant evolution from the “round trip” service model of current carsharing companies. As the post correctly points out, since then Daimler has now had several years experience with car2go’s one way, on-demand service on two continents, which I imagine the future operators of Autolib must be observing closely. Fortunately, car2go is not a university research project but a well-funded, large-scale, commercial implementation of the concept that will provide many useful lessons.

    Regarding some of the points in the article by Sylvain Marty:

    – Given the distribution of the stations Autolib will indeed serve the largest pool of potential customers of any carshare service in the world. It will be very interesting to compare usage patterns of the central arrondissements to the outer ones.

    – Operationally, since the service has to depend on stations (for recharging), it is going to be much more difficult to manage than car2go (which allows flexible parking anywhere within the large zone). Re-balancing the fleet and providing users with information about available parking is going to be a challenge.

    – Goals – since France has relatively low-percentage of fossil fuel-generated electricity (3.9% coal + 7% other fossil fuels), these electric vehicles will indeed be environmentally-friendly. Since French auto manufacturers have as much more experience building EVs as anyone on the planet I have every confidence they will be excellent vehicles. Hopefully, Bolloré bet on battery technology will be a good one.

    The second goal of increasing mobility for less well-off Parisians is more problematic in my mind. Given that the demographics of current carsharing members are well-educated and median income, I think it’s going to take some very creative marketing to interest ” Parisians who do not have access to a private vehicle, usually for economic reasons” mentioned by Mr. Marty has mention.

    – The Missing Link – Will Autolib have the same “game changing” effect on mobility that Velib has had? I hope so. In workshop presentations about carsharing I always point out the significance of “thinking big” as exemplified by the Velib system. The rest of the world desperately needs an example of “mobility on demand” that will get us past the car-ownership as the dominant or preferred transportation option. The timing for Autolib is excellent – even better than when the service was first conceived. Auto manufacturers are looking for new options in the sector (e.g. Peugot Mu); integration by mobility providers is greater than ever.

    In the past I’ve expressed concern that Autolib (and car2go) will take some trips away from existing public transportation. But as I’ve thought about it more it seems likely that this shift will be relatively small and I’m hopeful that the overall effect of making low or no-car ownership possible for a greater number of households will be much more powerful in the long run.

    Bon chance Autolib.

  3. There was a debate on french tv yesterday evening that you can watch (in french)

    A keypoint of the success of such a system is the reliability for the customer, will he be sure to have a car when he really needs it ? (I’ve heard it was one reason of stopping diracc in singapore). A carsharing user has sold his own car, and when he needs a car, he really needs it, would he be sure to have one in any location ? That’s the trouble of velib, a very nice system, but not always reliable (if you don’t get a velib you can take the subway or a cab) … If the system is not reliable, user will keep a private car and the system won’t have vertuous effects

  4. Pingback: Annals of Motordom – 19 « Price Tags

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