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Buzzing Around Paris in Borrowed Electric Cars
MY wife and I, who live in the center of Paris, are invited to dinner in Boulogne-Billancourt, just to the southwest of the city. So I log on to Autolib’ and within a few minutes I’ve reserved a car across the street and a parking spot over in Boulogne, a couple of blocks from our destination.

Outside, I run my plastic Autolib’ card past a brightly lighted terminal, tap a few buttons, decouple an aluminum all-electric sedan from the charging post, hop in and set the GPS to the parking station where I am headed.

The radio knows my usual station, TSF Jazz, so all that remains is to put the stick in D and hum off. Twenty-one minutes later, I plug in the car at Boulogne-Billancourt and receive a receipt by text message: “Your rental lasted 21 minutes for the amount of 3.32 euros.” Voilà!

If we had a car and had used it, we’d still be searching for parking as I write. A cab would have cost about 15 euros, or nearly $20, instead of $4.25. Two Metro tickets would have cost 3.40 euros, or $4.35 (if we did not have monthly passes). But our trip was a lot quicker, we went almost door to door and we got to catch a bit of the city by night.

In fact, we do this all the time now — as do 37,000 Parisians, with an additional 1,200 subscribers joining every week. A scant 11 months since it went public, the Autolib’ car-sharing program has proved a big success here, with well over half a million rentals already logged.

Like the wildly popular Vélib’ bicycle sharing program, Autolib’ is a pet project of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist, who wants to have 3,000 cars and 1,200 stations by 2014.

The Bluecars — their skin is actually unpainted aluminum to simplify replacing damaged parts — with “Libre comme l’air” (Free like the air) inscribed on their sides have become a common sight on the boulevards. At last count there were 1,800 of the cars scattered around 670 charging stations in Paris and its surroundings.

Electric cars may not be ready for family-sedan or even commuting duties quite yet; consider stopping for several hours to recharge on your way to Montauk. But for around-town use, the Bluecar is definitely chouette. Conceived by the Bolloré Group, which runs the Autolib’ program in partnership with the city, and designed by Pininfarina, the creator of some of the sexiest and fastest cars ever built, the Bluecar is actually rather pleasing on the outside.

The inside is gray and basic, though much improved since Autolib’ started using washable vinyl on the seats, instead of cloth, a few months ago.

Though only 12 feet long, the car is quite tall and spacious inside. Driving it is about as tough as choosing among R, N and D, and it’s peppy and easy to maneuver around town. The lithium-metal-polymer battery developed by Bolloré is said to have a 155-mile range in urban use and about 93 miles on the highway, but a run to the airport with a stop at Ikea was the only time I saw the charge meter dip below 70 percent.

No, it’s not perfect. I’ve encountered cars that were yucky, that stank of tobacco or were missing a side mirror, and Autolib’ acknowledged a predictable measure of vandalism and accidents. If the cell network goes down, so does the link between the car and the operations center. But when the network is up, you can call for help from every station and every car, and someone answers promptly. For me, ça marche.
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