Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Autolib offers compact, all-electric vehicles modeled after Velib

The big news out of Paris this weekend was that the city's long-awaited car-sharing service, dubbed Autolib, is at last up and running in a testing phase. There are now about 60 electric "Bluecars" scattered across ten Parisian car-sharing stations, but that's just a fraction of the final vision: By 2013, city officials hope to have 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles stationed at approximately 1,000 locations. 

Paris is touting Autolib as a first of its kind in the world, and it is, but not for the reasons we've been reading about in initial European media reports. Most of the coverage so far has focused on the fleet being all-electric, an army of compact, extremely quiet vehicles that The Guardian has already suggested could pose a danger to pedestrians ("Never mind stop, look, listen. If you get flattened by a Bluecar, you won't have heard it coming.") But quieter electric and hybrid vehicles aren't exactly new, and plenty of car-share services have been offering them for some time now. Will there soon be a lot more electric vehicles on the road in Paris thanks to Autolib? Probably, and certainly the infrastructure needed to keep them charged is of an impressive scale.

This isn't what makes Autolib potentially so different, though. Unlike the major American car-sharing options like Zipcar or some of the homegrown nonprofit versions available in individual cities, Autolib was modeled after Paris's wildly successful public-private bicycle-sharing system, Velib, and that means it was designed to allow one-way trips. The whole concept here is to make the system so widespread that it will encourage drivers to give up car ownership entirely. The Zipcar model is great for many things, but where it breaks down is its inability to allow users to return a car to a different location than where it was picked up.

Not so with Autolib, or at least that's the concept for once it becomes fully operational. Parisians looking to drive from one end of the city to the other and not return for three or four hours will theoretically have the option not to pay to keep the car the entire time; they can drop it off closer to their destination and pick up another whenever they're ready to head back. The costs would therefore be radically lower for many trips, although with that advantage comes the problem that those of us in cities with bike-sharing have already come to know well: there's no guarantee there will be an empty spot for the car once you get where you're going.

The basics: Memberships range from €10 for a month to €144 for a year, with rentals charged by the half-hour, between €4 to €8. The electric vehicles can travel up to 250 kilometers without running out of battery power.

One downside: Applying for membership, according to the service's website (assuming my rudimentary French skills aren't failing me) includes a fairly rigorous process that requires a personal visit to an Autolib office and a cash deposit, so it won't be easy for casual business visitors or tourists to take advantage.

Still, Paris was one of the early leaders in publicly funded bike-sharing programs. Assuming Autolib catches on, could Zipcar soon face competition from municipal governments here in the U.S.?

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