Julien Varin will never be mistaken for your average dark-suited French businessman.
With his suntan, good looks, open-necked shirt, and easy sense of humour, the spokesperson for the Autolib’ electric-car sharing company might seem more at home on the beaches of the French Riviera than in the boardrooms of the nation’s capital.
In a meeting with Canadian reporters in the company’s Parisian call centre, Varin quips that he could never attend a climate-change conference because he doesn’t own a tie.
But make no mistake: the nephew of French billionaire Vincent Bolloré is involved in a serious enterprise that could have a profound impact on the planet.
Varin, director of communications for the Bolloré Group’s BlueSolutions, is eager to describe his company’s revolutionary zero-emission, lithium-polymer battery, which powers 2,200 cars in the Autolib’ fleet.
Through a translator, he says that about three years ago the idea was ridiculed by the French media.
“The journalists said, ‘A car is like a toothbrush: you don’t share it,’ ” Varin recalls with a laugh.
It was also spurned by French automakers, forcing the Bolloré Group to develop its own vehicles—the Bluecar and Bluebus—to demonstrate that the battery was a winner.
The Bluecar reaches a maximum speed of 130 kilometres per hour and goes from zero to 70 kilometres per hour in six seconds.
“The different automobile manufacturers just use an existing frame and turn it into an electric car,” Varin scoffs. “We started with the battery and we built a car around the battery to optimize it.”
As of late March, Autolib’ had almost 140,000 members in Paris, who pay a $150 annual fee and $7.50 for every half-hour of use.
BlueSolutions is also in Bordeaux and Lyon and is preparing to bring its electric-car sharing operation to London, England.
Varin attributes the company’s success to the battery, which is being manufactured in France and Quebec.
After 18 years of research and an investment of $3.5 billion, the Bolloré Group developed a power source that enables its Bluecars to travel up to 250 kilometres without being recharged.
“They can go two-and-a-half times farther than an average electric car,” Varin explains.
Atos, an information technology service company, bought 20 Bluecars for its car-sharing program.
Thanks to photovoltaic panels, these vehicles are recharged with solar energy.
Varin claims that lithium-ion batteries are “inconvenient” because they “have been known to explode or burn”, and they carry less energy than the Bolloré Group’s patented lithium-polymer product. He compares a hydrogen-powered battery to “a moving bomb”.
The origins of Autolib’ can be traced to former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s efforts to create car-sharing service to complement the wildly popular Vélolib’ bike-sharing program.
Varin points out that the biggest obstacle facing the electric-vehicle industry is consumers’ fear of being stranded. The Bolloré Group has addressed this by installing 867 charging stations as of March, with 1,050 expected by the end of the year.
The parent company had revenues of approximately $16 billion in 2012, so it can easily afford to make an investment of this magnitude. BlueSolutions is able to produce 50,000 of these batteries a year, according to Varin.
“We’re ready to go anywhere—to any country, any city that’s interested in us,” he says. “We are ready to finance and invest in all of the installations, the charging stations, all the IT necessary.”
In the meantime, the company is developing an inexpensive, battery-powered high-capacity street-level train for urban transportation.
Varin maintains that it will be 10 times less expensive than a regular tram because there will be no need for tracks or electric wires. The battery would be recharged every time the train stops.
“You need one stop every one to two kilometres for supercharging,” he says. “Then it can go again for one to two kilometres.”
BlueSolutions claims that its car-sharing program in Paris has resulted in a reduction of more than 4.8 million kilograms of carbon-dioxide emissions.
When asked if this could one day be converted into cash through the sale of carbon credits, Varin smiles before saying, "It's possible. It's very possible."
The French Foreign Ministry financed the trip by Canadian journalists to study France’s transportation system.