A brief history of Autolib’

Photo Sylvain Géron / CTO, Canal+, co-funder and former manager, Polyconseil / March 3rd, 2016

SYNDICATED FROM

L'Ecole de Paris

Autolib' is a technical, operational and commercial success. This electric car-sharing service which started in Paris and operates in several French cities is now going global: the latest city where the scheme has been adopted is Indianapolis. This rather risky venture was made possible by the alliance between a giant and a startup. Here is its story.

The Autolib’ service was launched for ‘beta testing’ (the second stage of a software development phase) in Paris on October 2nd, 2011, nine months after Vincent Bolloré asked Polyconseil to work on the project. At that time, there were 66 cars and 33 car rental stations. The day the beta test was launched, the service was still not perfect, but it was the start of what is still the largest urban electric car-sharing scheme in the world, allowing drivers to rent a car at one location and return it to a different location. Other car-sharing schemes have generally not used electric cars, and usually the driver has to return the car to the place where he rented it.

50 million kilometres per year
The Autolib’ service is available in 90 communes in the Paris region. This number will increase in 2016. Autolib’ has more than 200 ‘ambassadors’ (our teams on the ground) and a fleet of close to 4,000 cars. In 2015, our cars have covered a total of 50 million kilometres. We have 1060 rental stations (more than 500 of which are in Paris) and 5,700 charging stations (more than half of all the existing electric charging stations in France). Since each charging station occupies one car parking space, these charging stations represent approximately 15 kilometres of road space which we had to request from the elected representatives of the Paris region.

Every day there are, on average, 17,000 rentals, and each car is rented on an average of six/seven times per day. Our cars are therefore very visible to potential clients. We have 70 subscription kiosks. Since Autolib’ was launched, more than 500,000 people have subscribed to one of our subscription plans. The financial breakeven point, estimated to be 80,000 Premium subscriptions, has been be reached in 2015 and we now have more than 100,000 Premium subscribers.

autolib

Subscribers to the yearly Premium subscription plan are generally male, but the distribution is moving towards more young subscribers who live in central Paris. Many of them have abandoned their principal or secondary cars. Therefore, several thousand fewer cars have not been bought or resold. The number of cars which we have added in Paris is therefore largely compensated by those which have been removed from the equation because of the existence of our scheme.

The service is proving to be viable and may be deployed in other cities in France and around the world. After Lyon and Bordeaux, where schemes began in 2014, we are getting ready to launch a service in Indianapolis (USA) in the middle of 2015. We hope to start a scheme in an Asian city, probably Singapore, and we have met representatives from a number of large capital cities to discuss the advantages of our service in their cities.

Our service is easy to use. It is possible to take out a subscription using a computer, smartphone or subscription kiosk in the street. The driver can transmit the relevant documents, and reserve a car or a parking space thirty minutes in advance. When the driver has the documents in hand, the subscription process only takes 5 to 7 minutes following which the rental starts straightaway.

Even though we only have 4,000 cars today, Autolib’ is truly a transport service operator. We have to manage clients in the street, cars which have on-board computer systems, stations which require technical maintenance, teams on the ground to assist users, and our call centre. This complexity is, proportionally speaking, rather similar to a transport operator like SNCF, the French national train operator.

A completely new trade
We had very little time to set up this scheme. During 2010, we helped Vincent Bolloré respond to the invitation to tender launched by the Syndicat Mixte Autolib’ which at the time included about forty communes including Paris. The Bolloré group, which was the only industrial operator among the other candidates vying for the tender, won the tender in November of the same year. On February 1st, 2011, Vincent Bolloré asked Polyconseil to manage the IT side of the project. I immediately formed a small team of five people. By March 1st, we had devised the ‘Customer Journey’ (the stages clients ‘travel through’ in their relationship with a particular product) and we had started on the IT side with several computer programmers. On May 15th, we launched the invitations to tender for the telecom infrastructures, networks and IT systems. On June 15th, the first ‘Proof of Concept’ (PoC) demonstration was carried out in a private location and tested the feasibility of renting a car. On October 2nd, there was a pre-launch of the service with 33 stations and 66 cars. On December 5th, the mayor of Paris inaugurated the scheme in the streets of the capital with 250 stations and as many cars.

The Polyconseil consultants were exhausted, some even cried from tiredness and joy on the day of the launch. We had arrived at the finishing line after ten extremely draining months, and everything had been completed. Polyconseil was responsible for the entire project, ranging from the development of the IT system, to the telecom infrastructures and for establishing the operational centre with all of its systems and telephony. We also had to interconnect different technical systems with the subscription kiosks, rental and charging stations, and with the cars and their on-board computers. We had to put in place the communication system between the different ambassadors on the ground and the operational call centre which defines what they have to do and with which they are continually in touch, as well as everything to do with payment, insurance and staff management.

The company IER was in charge of the terminals. A leader in this industry, IER makes ticket terminals in train stations and airports, as well as security gates. Our information systems are connected because their terminals are controlled by our central system. Blue Solutions, a company which has been working for fifteen years on the Bolloré group’s battery, was in charge of the car itself. These companies hardly knew each other before this project started, but have since become closer, and are now part of Blue Solutions, Vincent Bolloré’s ‘grand project’.

We designed the system architecture for these various interconnections, but the part which required the greatest amount of human investment and brainpower was the design of the central software. Autolib’ created a completely new line of business, and we had to develop a system which was capable of managing it from scratch. By the time we launched this service at the end of 2011, about fifteen programmers had been working on it for ten months. Today, the system is about twenty times bigger because we have changed from what was just the ‘bare essentials’ when we started, to what is necessary to operate it today, with all the maintenance, team management, balanced location of its fleet of cars, and the variety of subscriptions plans on offer. It is similar in its diversity to that of a telecommunications operator. This is where the intelligence of the entire project lies : it is possible to change the terminals, the people and the cars, but the central software is the key to the structure. It would take between 150 and 200 man-years of work for someone to arrive at the same result having started from scratch.

Having started with just one person, then five people in the second week, the team gradually organised itself and now looks like the technical team in any large company while still managing to be flexible. The IER and Polyconseil technical teams have merged and I am in charge of this new structure which employs 200 people. They continue to work in order to improve the service, but they also devote themselves to the development of new projects, in particular in cities like Indianapolis where we intend to launch a new scheme.

The Autolib’ customer journey
The Autolib’ Customer Journey incorporates a variety of elements. It includes the subscription, the reservation, the rental of the car, the on-board computer, the client’s experience in the car, his contact with the operational centre and, finally, the financial transaction.

In Paris, there are 70 subscription kiosks. Their locations were chosen in accordance with the Monuments de France, the state body which manages the monuments of France’s national heritage. Clients can also take out a subscription on the Autolib’ website or by using their smartphone. It is a multi-channel experience, in other words one can start the subscription procedure using one of these means of communication, and continue it using another. The technology necessary to implement the subscription process is highly sophisticated, and its most original feature is that clients can enrol via videoconference with a service centre. This is the only form of ‘street videoconferencing’ which exists in the world, and we had a number of difficulties setting this up with the interbank network in France (Groupement des Cartes Bancaires) because it is not standard practice to take out subscriptions in public places. Consequently, our enrolment operation had to be tested, validated and is now potentially available to other companies.

The procedure is as follows. The client enters the information required using a touch screen. He is then photographed and his documents are digitally scanned. The enrolment process is complete when a RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) badge is printed out giving the client access to the car. This procedure takes about seven minutes. This is a truly technical achievement and a large part of our subscriptions continue to be taken using this method. Visual contact is therefore very useful in developing this service commercially. The Autolib’ website looks like any other subscription website. It is also possible for clients to take out subscriptions using our app. Unfortunately the client cannot print out the badge using this method, but it is sent to him within forty-eight hours unless he wants to go to a kiosk in the street and print it out there. Half of our subscriptions are made using the kiosks. The rest are made via the Internet: one third of these are completed using the kiosks, another third receive the badge in the post, and the remainder are subscription requests which have not been successfully implemented, representing a certain loss which we are trying to reduce. Nonetheless, we think that itr was a wise commercial move to have invested a significant amount of money in these subscription kiosks on the streets of Paris.

Having completed the subscription procedure, the client then holds the badge over the reader at the rental terminal. He is then asked a number of questions, for example, whether he has recently consumed alcohol or drugs. If the answers are satisfactory, the driver is assigned a car from a charging bay the number of which is indicated on the screen. The rental terminal may appear disproportionately large for the function it performs, but more than half of its volume is taken up with the electrical equipment which supplies the charging terminals. In cities where we intend to operate this scheme in the future, we are in the process of preparing a radically different version where the electrical equipment is located elsewhere and interaction with the client takes place at the charging terminal itself. We are also simplifying other functions in order to improve the system.

The customers can reserve their car and parking for free. The car reservation can be made using an iPhone or Android app. One just needs to confirm by clicking on the button which indicates that a specific car is available, and five seconds later it will be reserved for the next thirty minutes. This is the same procedure for reserving the parking place where one wants to return the car. We are working on a future version whereby the driver merely has to specify his current location and desired destination so that the nearest car and final parking place can be reserved automatically. The driver can also choose to reserve a parking place at his destination using the on-board computer inside the car, and the navigation system will direct the driver to this place. Of course, any reservation made using a smartphone will be transmitted to the system and the navigation system of the car being used.

The on-board computer has a large blue button which allows the driver to contact the call centre if necessary. This also works the other way round : if the driver does something inappropriate, for example drives outside the Paris region, in other words, leaves the authorised Autolib’ perimeter, we can call the driver in the car to tell him to come back. This happens from time to time. Given the fact that the on-board computer is constantly connected to the centre, the car ‘knows’ the driver and his Autolib’ experience is unique to the driver. When one gets into the car, the computer greets the driver using his first name. It preloads the driver’s favourite audio selections (which have been saved from a previous Autolib’ rental experience) and the first programmed radio station available is the last one which the driver listened to in a previous Autolib’ car. It also knows the driver’s saved destinations (‘favourites’). Overall, the driver is made to feel that this is ‘his’ car and his needs are important. We intend to develop this personalised approach as a result of the requests which we receive. In the short term, changes which are implemented are the result of an increasing number of contributions made by clients to improve the service. We encourage them to give us feedback about, for example, the state of the car, both inside and out.

The call centre is the nerve centre of the system. Its control screen is similar to that of a telecom operator. The agents who help clients to enrol via videoconference are located in the call centre. This is also where we offer assistance if cars are damaged or when a parking place has been reserved, but has been taken by another car. In this case, we direct the driver to another place or, in rare cases, we allow him to leave the car wherever it is and we send someone to pick it up. This call centre is evolving: it now manages private fleets of cars. Our approach has won various prizes for its innovation with regard to the client experience, as well as for its design and futuristic projects.

Autolib’ and Vincent Bolloré’s entrepreneurial project
The Bolloré group was founded in 1822 and manufactured fine paper, such as the paper used in bibles and cigarette paper. A family-run company for six generations, it currently employs 55,000 people and has a turnover of $15 billion. Having specialized in the fine paper industry, the Bolloré group turned its attention to plastic film and then to paper for condensers (a sector where it is the world leader), and finally to electricity. During the 1990s, the group started investing in the electric battery sector where it produced its first prototypes a decade later. This is how it came into contact with the large car manufacturers.

These manufacturers were not very enthusiastic about producing an electric car, and so Vincent Bolloré decided to make it himself. The result was the Bluecar and the Autolib’ car-sharing scheme was its first major client. Autolib’ became Bolloré’s platform which proved that the right choices had been made, firstly with regard to the battery (which is at the heart of the group’s investments) and secondly the car itself. Today he is the only person to have 4,000 cars in circulation which use an electric battery, each car clocking up between 30,000 and 40,000 kilometres without needing to be changed.

The Bolloré group has developed a Bluebus, Bluetram and Blueboat. They all rely on the electric battery manufactured by the company. There is also a Bluesummer convertible car which exists on the Côte d’Azur and in the West Indies. An agreement has been signed to work with Renault on incorporating the Renault Twizy cars into the BlueLy fleet of cars in Lyons. This means hard work to make the Twizy’s on-board computer system compatible Autolib’s. This assignment is in line with Polyconseil’s core business. The company is beginning to develop management software regarding bus and tram routes, supervising private cars and providing long-distance assistance.

The Bolloré group is also developing other uses for the battery, notably stationary storage linked to intermittent renewable energy sources. These sorts of applications associated with the battery may be connected to solar panels, and make it possible for a variety of sites to have a degree of energy autonomy.

An Autolib’ battery pack provides thirty kilowatt-hours and weighs 300 kilos. For a boat it weighs 600 kilos and for a bus, 900 kilos. The Autolib’ car runs on a Lithium-Metal-Polymer (LMP) battery which is a solid mixture compared to Lithium-Ion batteries which are liquid and need to be cooled. It is also much more stable : this is an essential factor for all mobile applications or for use in hot countries. Up to thirty-six of these batteries can be combined on a stationary site and stored in containers for up to one megawatt-hour. The group is also involved in tests with French and foreign operators to ‘smooth out’ renewable energy inputs (in other words, to adjust f luctuations).

Our most significant developments at the moment are the Bluezone projects in Niamey (Niger) and Togo. The Bluezones are areas covering several hectares equipped with solar panels and containers filled with LMP batteries. These Bluezones are able to provide autonomous energy to the area as well as a telecom service and, since we are the only ones in the area to have energy, we have set up clinics, created sports facilities and cinemas, and produced drinking water. As a result, these Bluezones are the only places with electricity at night in these African cities.

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