Autolib, not so « green » ?

Next week, Paris will host the COP21 international meeting, to discuss and agree on drastic measures to handle the climate change challenge. During 2 weeks, public policies will be evaluated and compared. With public transports being at the heart of the issue, electric cars deployed by the municipalities need, more than ever, to be assessed in total transparency.  

Autolib service is almost deployed. Monday 5th of December 2011, the vehicle fleet was composed of 250 bluecars, the engine designed and assembled by Vincent Bolloré’s group. The group can now claim a 3,300 vehicles’ fleet distributed over 1,000 stations, concerning 82 municipalities.

This obvious success has been backed by a clear marketing strategy. “Simple, practical, economical and ecological”: 4 words to sum up a service. Autolib website boasts a “green” and “ecological” vehicle, therefor quickly convincing public authorities and users. Decision makers were actually seduced by the supposedly clean engine, essential to meet with the energy transition law’s objectives.

Oddly enough, Paris EELV’s – French ecological political party- deputies were opposed to the project right at the beginning. Its articulation with other public transports was queried as some deputies were afraid it would lead to lower the use of public transports such as sub or bus. Claude Bascompte, president of the association “Les amis de la terre Paris” already declared at that time that “only the implementation of efficient public transports and new roadway layouts boosting green transports would reduce the automobile traffic and tackle air pollution”.

The Jury of Ethical Advertising (JEA) which is part of the French Autorité de régulation professionnelle de la publicité (ARPP), finally condemned Autolib in early June this year. The use of “green” and “ecological” to describe the service was considered as inaccurate. Incitation to use electric vehicles to “reduce air pollution” was also judged inexact as far as public transports are more efficient. JEA’s notice also tackled the lack of comparison with other technologies such as combustion engine.

In last December, French Ademe (the Agency for the Environment and Management of Energy) published a report after conducting such comparison between different technologies. Its conclusions are the following: electric cars are less ecological to be produced, mostly due to batteries’ components. Its use is then much greener than a combustion engine. For a 150,000 km cycle, an Autolib releases around 10 tons of CO2 against 22 tons for a diesel car and 27 tons for a gasoline vehicle. These conclusions thus clearly discredited the use of “green” and “ecological” qualifiers to describe electric engines. At best, they are a little greener. And still, we don’t take into consideration the local soil pollution, notably in South America, provoked by extraction of lithium, main component of the batteries. In this regard, Autolib might not even less pollute, but pollutes somewhere else.

Users don’t seem to have -yet- much consideration for this revelation; Autolib’s utilization has not been impacted and pursues its expansion. Hanaë is a 26 years old customer. On a daily basis she has been using Autolib for 2 years, mostly to go from her place in Gambetta to Bastille, where she works. Though she admits having been “seduced by the green facet” of the car, these revelations “won’t change anything in her consumption”. She adds : “I’m using it because I have no choice and because it’s practical, I would certainly use a gas engine the same way if I had one”.


Hanaë, Autolib user for 2 years

But in the aftermath of the still fresh Volkswagen scandal, we might agree JEA’s notice is taking a whole new dimension. The issue drifts from the only “ecological doubt” to the question of industries fairness and sincerity when it comes to promoting their technologies and products. It’s no big deal to agree heads of Bolloré’s communication were aware of the ambiguity and fuzziness of their marketing campaign. But with the lack of heavy sentences and fines (JEA notices are not constraining), companies are almost encouraged to play with inaccuracies in their promotions. Neither the mixed syndicate Autolib nor the Bolloré Group agreed to answer my questions, considering “the case is closed”.

We can actually even go deeper into the ecological problematic of Autolib if we take into consideration the only energetic consumption of the engine. The supposed “green” technology in fact relies on electricity. French electricity is accepted as CO2 free as far as it mostly comes from nuclear plants. Nuclear amounts for 71 % of the electricty production in 2015. We should though keep in mind the situation is not the same abroad. Germany, as an example, produces a lot relying on coal (40% of the electricity produced in 2015) in the aftermath of Fukushima’s catastrophe. A service such as Autolib implemented in Germany would thus currently be releasing a lot more CO2 because of the coal consumption.

But to what extent are public authorities aware of these issues?

Autolib issue is actually symptomatic of a larger mess: our energetic policy. The problems of competences’ distribution is obvious and was already criticized by the the report of the Balladur Comity, from the commission Warsmann in 2007. Whereas the public transports policies are decided and implemented by municipalities and regions, the energy policy on its part is decided on the national level. In this regard, the much debated decision of reducing the nuclear production capacity can appear as contradictory with the extension of electric vehicles. In addition, in the context of the energy transition and the current COP21, the transport issue is crucial. The Energy transition law, voted on August 17th, dedicates its Title III to “developing proper transports to ameliorate air quality and protect health”. Of course, large room is given to electric transports and the multiplication of charging stations. Given that this law is the foundation of the energy policy orientation for the decades to come, such contradictions need to be addressed without any delay and in complete transparency. We might add that preferring electric cars to bikes or public transports is a wrong signal to send to users, but also hardly fits into any ambitious transport networks’ renovation.

Unfortunately, JEA’s notice was published after 4 years of Autolib’s development. Even now the green marketing has been balanced, reverse gear seems impossible. The service had such an extension it has become unavoidable. Municipalities like Montreuil which refused to install station at first are now back-pedaling, afraid of the compartmentalization induced by the service’s absence. All the municipal officials addressed refused to answer questions concerning the ecological quarrel on the electric vehicles, thus witnessing the difficulties to establish a proper communication line.






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