A Bluecar departs from the Autolib' pickup station during the first… (Horacio Villalobos, European…)
Reporting from Paris — The French capital rolled out the first of its new eco-friendly electric "bubble cars" on Sunday at the launch of a car-sharing plan it hopes will spark a quiet transportation revolution.
Hot on the wheels of Paris' self-service bicycle program known as Velib', comes Autolib'. As with the 20,000 cycles at hundreds of stations across the city since 2007, anyone wishing to get from Point A to Point B in the French capital will soon be able to pick up an electric Bluecar at one location and drop it off at another.
By 2013, city officials plan to have between 3,000 and 5,000 environmentally friendly Bluecars stationed at more than 1,000 locations across the city, with the aim of cutting noise and air pollution as well as reducing traffic by discouraging private car ownership.
During an unusually sunny early autumn lunchtime on the Avenue Trudaine in Paris' family-friendly 9th arrondissement, curious onlookers gathered Sunday around a line of Bluecars brought out for a two-month trial in preparation for the official launch in early December.
On a nearby cafe terrace bemused diners watched the electric cars, which, contrary to their name are not blue but unpainted aluminum, zip up and down the avenue. There were no complaints about fumes or noise because there were none.
The Bluecar has been described as a "bubble car," but looks like the electric Smart car's bigger brother. Nobody would guess by looking at it that it was designed by the Italian firm that makes Ferraris.
Annick Lepetit, who is in charge of transportation issues at Paris City Hall, said this was the future of urban motoring. She praised the vision of the Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, who was behind both the bicycle- and auto-sharing plans.
Owning a car, she said, is passe.
"Private cars are expensive and people are using them less and less in cities," she said. "We're moving into another culture, the culture of car-sharing. It's the same principle as Velib'; you use the car, leave it and that's it. Simple.
"These cars are ecological and economical," she added. "It's a real revolution and I can see it being copied in other cities."
Not everyone was so happy. One Paris resident stopped for a quick rant. "I've lived here for 30 years and nobody asked us if we wanted this," he said. "Is that what you call democracy?"
He criticized Vincent Bollore, whose company has reportedly invested up to $1.34 billion in developing the Bluecar and the new lithium-metal polymer batteries to power it. The billionaire industrialist is, incidentally, a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"This is all about friends with friends," he said, stomping off. A round of applause from people at the windows of the nearby apartment building showed he was not the only critic.
Morald Chibout, the head of Bollore's Autolib' operation, said the firm has already been approached by other cities.
For those interested in "specs," there are few: The Bluecar has a simple automatic gearbox with just forward, reverse and neutral positions, four seats, and the tiniest of trunks. Charge it for eight hours and off it will go for a maximum 155 miles. It does 0-100 kilometers per hour ( 0-62.1 mph) in 6.7 seconds, and has a top speed of just under 81 mph.
It boasts a GPS to stop drivers from getting lost (and allow Autolib' to keep track of you). In case of a fender-bender, there's a big blue button to raise the alarm at a control center.
Before taking a car, drivers must register with Autolib' and provide a driver's license, ID card and credit card. They will be able to sign up for daily, weekly or annual memberships ranging from about $13 to $192, with users paying more depending on the length of time the car is used, to encourage shorter trips.
It's clean, it's green, it's silent. It's also cheap, compact, comfortable and surprisingly zippy. Aside from the grousing about rich-and-powerful connections, what's not to like?
Well, life just got more dangerous for the long-suffering Paris pedestrian.
If you get flattened by a Bluecar, you won't even hear it coming.
Willsher is a special correspondent.