Autolib in Paris Shows How Electric Car Sharing May Not Be Green

By · October 02, 2013

One Autolib car in Paris

One Autolib car in Paris

A lot of people are excited about car sharing in Europe. It's part of the "sharing economy," in which individuals belong to an organization that provides access to services (such as mobility), without having to own things (like a car). In other words: access versus ownership. But one question needs to be asked: Is it green?

It sounds like a simple question with an obvious answer: Is there less energy consumption with an EV sharing service than with individuals driving their own gas cars? After a close look at the Parisian Autolib service, the answer is not so obvious.

An Autolib rental kiosk

An Autolib rental kiosk in Paris.

People only see the cars on the street, but they're the tip of the iceberg. There are Autolib stations (parking and charging only) and Autolib kiosks that offer subscription facilities. There are also facilities with people providing information. All those are connected 24/7 with the Autolib HQ, where there is a call center and many powerful computers to constantly monitor the fleet of nearly 2,000 cars.

In addition, the service uses diesel trucks—they can be seen everyday in Paris—taking cars away for maintenance. All in all, this is a large organization, with more than 500 employees. Everybody knows that electric cars are very efficient, with have very low energy consumption, but in assessing the service's virtues, it's important to account for the energy consumption in every part of the operation—down to the smallest detail, and not only the cars.

Autolib cars waiting for drivers

Autolib cars waiting for drivers.

Even the cars might not be so green. The Bolloré Bluecar uses lithium metal polymer cells, made by Bolloré itself. These cells have been around for nearly 10 years. Many European car manufacturers had a look at them, but none bought any. They have a problem in the sense that they are "warm cells," which do not work at ambient temperature. They need to be warmed up, and kept warm at all times. It's not much of a concern for car sharing use, where cars are only driven for a short period of time, before quickly going back to a plug. But it would matter for a private automobile.

The battery of a parked but unplugged Bolloré Bluecar goes from fully charged to totally discharged in less than 72 hours! To remain at operating temperature, the battery draws current from its plug at all times, and with 2,000 cars plugged, this consumption is significant. How significant? Enough to be worth hiding, as I asked Bolloré three times about the subject, and they replied three times that they don't communicate on this matter.

A conservative estimate would put the electrical consumption of the entire service at more than five times the electrical consumption of the cars when driving, and that alone is enough to question the greenness of Autolib car sharing.

In European cities though, the concept remains valuable because of high population density. Parking is so scarce in Paris, that the idea of reducing the number of cars makes sense. But it's awful to learn that it may end up rising energy consumption. At least, this calls for precise tools to assess, measure and control car sharing services. It's especially important considering most car sharing services receive some kind of public support. The Bolloré group is about to float 10 percent of "Blue Solutions" unit, which groups its various battery activities other than Autolib, on NYSE Euronext. Investors in EV stocks should not expect with Bolloré the same success they've enjoyed with Tesla shares.

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