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Paris to launch innovative car-sharing program

Paris is preparing to unveil a car-sharing program consisting of a 4,000 electric cars and 1,400 rental stations scattered throughout the city and neighboring suburbs.

Dubbed Autolib, after the popular Velib bike-sharing program, the car-sharing service will offer far more flexibility than its U.S. counterparts. For example, drivers won’t have to make a reservation to use a car. Instead, they can simply walk up to an available vehicle and swipe a credit card. And rather than requiring cars to be dropped off where they were picked up, Autolib will allow drivers to drop cars off at any available stand.

The scheme has encountered some surprising opposition from French environmentalists, who fear that the system’s very convenience will make it an attractive alternative to walking, biking, or public transportation. This isn’t a totally crazy fear — car-sharing programs provide different incentives to different people. For some, they may be a replacement for a secondary or even a primary car. For others, particularly those who don’t own a car and weren’t planning to get one, car-sharing programs may be a valuable service but are unlikely to offer much in the way of environmental benefits.

So the price matters and the target customer group matters. The transportation mix in any city can include taxis, buses, trains, privately-owned cars, bicycles, and foot traffic. How will Autolib affect the balance of these elements? Evidence from U.S.-based car-sharing programs has so far been encouraging. The French experiment injects some exciting innovation into this young industry.

And speaking of electric fleets, Better Place has reached a deal to provide electric taxis in Tokyo starting in early 2010. The taxis will use Better Place’s battery-swapping technology for quick recharging.

This is a surprising announcement. Most car owners don’t drive very far in a typical day, a fact that is in some ways the saving grace of current battery technology. Batteries might not provide a lot of range, but most drivers don’t need a lot of range. They can run their errands during the day and juice up at night.

Taxis, on the other hand, drive constantly, and each will need to have its battery swapped many times in a single day. This test will pound the heck out of Better Place’s experimental infrastructure, providing a great testing ground for the technology.

The pilot project will be small, and as far as I know it’s the first public trial of Better Place’s technology. 2010 is not all that far away. The world will be watching.

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