Paris Blog: A look at the Autolib: It’s like ZipCar for Paris

As many of you know, we don’t own a car here in Paris.  When we moved over here – we sold off our two cars (to friends and family), and figured we’d figure it out as we went along.  Given we’re just a block or so from a Metro (subway) station, and have bicycles – it would be pretty easy to go without a car, save for a few random times.

When we got here this summer, we started seeing these little electric cars parked all over Paris – you literally couldn’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing a station of 3-5 cars parked and hooked up.  We started investigating it, and found out it’s actually a pretty good deal.  It works sorta similar to Zipcar in the US (though, I’m not super-familiar with that program).  We pay an annual fee – a little over 100-Euros, and then we pay by the half-hour.  The rates vary from 4-7 Euros per half-hour.  There are no fees for how far you drive.  There are some limitations – you’re only allowed to drive so far outside the city before some voice in the sky pops up on your dashboard and tells you to turn around.  Like the GM Onstar, but…Autolib instead.

For us, we pretty much only use the little car to go get supplies for the CupCakery at the restaurant supply store.  So on average, about once a week.  There are a few random trips too– such our trip to the u-pick farm to go vegetable/fruit picking.  These are places where the Metro doesn’t really go, nor would be practical (i.e. carrying back 100 pounds of flower/sugar/etc…).  And usually, it’s far cheaper and faster than a taxi.

Every time we go to pickup a car, tourists stop to watch how it all works (and even take photos of us).  So I figure if every person that visits Paris is interested in how it works – you might be as well.

First up, finding the cars.  There’s an app for that!  It tells me what’s nearest to me, and if there are open cars/spots.

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From there, I grab my Autolib yellow card:

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I’ll go up to the small machine that’s on the curb, or at the end of cars.  You can’t just randomly pick a car, you gotta take to the ATM machine of sorts.  I just swipe my card where those arrows are at the bottom.

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It then tells me that there are indeed vehicles available, and I simply tap the button to go ahead and begin.  Now interestingly, the company behind Autolib is actually a British company, which means that I can display everything in English.  Additionally, if I connect to a human and ask for help – it’s a very friendly Brit.  Perfect!

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Next, it asks me three questions – Monty Python style!  In my case, my license is tied to a valid US drivers license – which Autolib holds a copy of.  Beyond that, it ensures I’m not drinking, nor taking any performance enhancing drugs.

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Once I do that, it then tells me which car I’ll get.  In this case, it’s car #2.

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Looks like there were two cars to choose from that day.  It seems based on what I’ve seen that all things charge-wise being equal, it’ll actually give you whichever car is easiest to get out (from a parking standpoint).  Kinda nice!

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Next, I’ll go to the car and swipe my cardkey on the badge reader.  It’s just like at work, except, inside the window.  There are no keys for door entry – the card is my key.  If I want to park and leave the vehicle somewhere, I just swipe to lock it.  I can keep the car for quite a long time.  Not sure exactly, but we had it for 2-3 hours one day out at the farm.

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Then, I go up to the little tower next to the car.  The tower contains the plug to charge the car.  In this case, it’s connected to the car.  The top lifts up when you unlock it from either the unit, or the ATM machine thing.

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Here’s the cable in the car (charging)…

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And here’s the cable unplugged.  It’s pretty much impossible to put in the wrong way.  Not sure how you’d do it the wrong way even if you wanted to.  But in this case, we’re taking it out.

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We just stash it inside the little car-side tower, and then close it up.  It’ll lock automatically.

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After getting inside the car, it welcomes us.  In theory it remembers settings like radio stations and the like – but, we don’t really use that piece.

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In the dashboard I can see how far I’ve gone on that trip, as well as the battery level.  In this case, it seems like the trip indicator is a bit off (since I just got in the car).

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With that, we’re off and driving.  As you can see, it’s not a terribly big car, so I don’t fit super-well.

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The dashboard has a GPS built into it, so I can program an address as well as see where parking spots are.  If you look at the below, those blue numbers indicate open parking spots at Autolib stations.  When I want to navigate back (I can go to any station), I just type in the station name nearest me.  Makes it easy to get around parts of the city I’m not good at yet.  Though these days, I don’t need the GPS unless we’re going on the fringe of the city somewhere I haven’t been (for a cake/cupcake delivery).

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If you notice the below, as I brake it’ll transfer that energy back into charging the battery.  You can kinda see it on the right side with the green arrow illuminated.

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Conversely, if I’m ‘burning electricity’, you’ll see the arrow go from the battery to the car.

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Otherwise, I just drive.  Yup, that’s me.  The Girl is taking the photos.

I don’t mind driving here.  I’ve driven enough in dozens of other countries that it doesn’t phase me.  And just for clarification – we drive on the right here – just like in the US.  In fact, I’ve found it easier to switch to driving on the left when I travel to countries that are left-sided.  I think it’s because I only drive once a week, so some of the habits wear off a bit.  Some coworkers were recently amazed at how fluid things were when I drove in the UK – despite being on the ‘wrong side of the road’.

The Girl isn’t as much a fan of driving here, mostly due to the city aspect (though she still does occasionally).  Driving here isn’t nearly as crazy as some countries I’ve been to (i.e. Thailand), but, it’s definitely a bit more ‘free’ than in the US or Canada.  Lanes are merely ‘suggestions’, and you must make a extra partial lane out of your lane for mopeds and motorcycles.  So getting used to the ‘extra lane’ concept can be a bit odd.  Of course, I’ve long since learned about extra lanes (again, in Asia).  Where a standard two-lane road (one in each direction) is actually a five lane road: The breakdown lanes are considered valid travel lanes (2), then the two regular lanes (2), and then the center-line is considered a lane (1).  Like 5 for the price of 2!

Here, more like 4 for 2.  No centerline lane.  At any rate…

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Of course, our real talent here is packing in the goods!  We’ll go to the store and fit in a mind-bogglingly large amount of stuff into that little car.  This is one of the earlier trips we did back in October for supplies.  P.S. – That’s a LOT of chocolate….and butter.

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And, same goes for our trip out to the farm:

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The only bummer about the car is that the backseat is bolted upright.  So you can’t put it down.  This makes it slightly tricky to use for holding two bikes.  We can fit them in, but we have to take off both wheels to do so (on both bikes).  It’s also a bit expensive if you were going on a long-ride somewhere, but it’s not too bad if you pick a station outside the city – pay the 30 minute fee to get there ($4-$7), and then pick up a car again for the way home.  To date, we’ve just simply ridden our way out instead.

Finally, when we’re all done, we simply find an open parking spot at an Autolib station, and park the car.  All we need to do is tap the little tower with our card and then it opens up the charging cable to reconnect it.  Then we just lock the car and walk away!

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For us, we tend to pickup the car nearest our house, and then drop it off nearest the bakery.  Of course, those two are pretty much only a few hundred yards away – but via car, they end up being about 5-8 minutes drive due to one-way streets.

Hope ya found it interesting.  Thanks for reading!

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25 Comments

  1. Iain

    What are the parking rates in Paris? And alternatively, when you are out and about, can you park at another auto lib station for free without giving up the car?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      You can park in any Autolib spot anywhere in the city. If you park there, you're effectively turning in the car - which is fine.

      I actually don't know about parking rates in Paris - never parked anywhere other than another Autolib spot, or the restaurant supply store.

      Reply
    • Sébastien replied

      It is quite expensive but it vary with the type (ouside, underground...) and the area. Maybe 5€ average per hour.

      Reply
  2. Dom

    I don't know about the US, but Zipcar in the UK is much less convenient than that - you have to book the car in advance, giving the pickup time and booking length, and each car has a specific site which it must be returned to. They don't care how far you take them, though.

    Reply
    • Autolib' replied

      Zipcar may be quite different than our service - even if the company behind Autolib' is not British but French (The Bolloré Group) - people can either pick an available car when needed in one of our 730 stations in Paris and the 46 partner-cities or book a car 30 minutes in advance for how long as you want - provided you will have enough range for your route!

      Reply
  3. Sébastien

    " the company behind Autolib is actually a British company, which means that I can display everything in English"

    The company behind Autolib is Bolloré witch is a French company.
    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Interesting. I guess all of our communications get routed to the UK side, since we're English speaking. But you're right, Bolloré is definitely French.

      Reply
  4. Dear Iain,

    The parking rates in Paris depend on many aspects: the status of the driver (inhabitant or visitor), its location (public, private, streets, indoor...) and as the cheapest option (streets) is most of the time very busy - Autolib' could be a good solution for Parisian and suburbans to visit each other and share a common car.
    When using Autolib' you can park on every Autolib' station. The best is always to get the car back to terminate the lease and stop the bill - on the other side, giving it back allow other users to take it...
    It won't be a problem to stop for a few minutes on an Autolib' station without plugging it back but you will be charge for it and would not be allowed to drop it like this for a full day - it has to be replugged soon or later when you won't need it anymore.

    Reply
  5. Reid

    Thanks for the detailed post (again!), Ray. This is fascinating.

    We found Paris easy to walk/metro around as tourists, but we weren't lugging hundreds of pounds of cupcake materials, either.

    As always, great work! Thanks again.

    Reply
  6. John

    What I find interesting is the lack of a German language option.

    Reply
  7. Laurie

    This is a very interesting concept. I am wondering about car maintenance though. What happens if you get a flat tire somewhere? Who keeps the interior clean?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      If you get a flat, you can use the touch screen to be connected live with someone. We had an issue back a month or so ago where the drivers side window actually wouldn't go up. Thankfully we weren't on a long trek. We just got connected to their helpdesk, and then they told us to just drop it off when we were done as normal and they'd send someone to fix it.

      As for cleaning, they have workers that make the rounds. We see them occasionally cleaning out cars. They aren't always perfectly clean - but usually pretty good.

      Reply
    • Tim replied

      Very cool. There is a similar version of this in a few cities in the US called "car2go." Pretty much the same type of car (electric, small, etc.) Really handy, just as the Autolib sounds.

      Reply
    • Paul Dixon replied

      Similar, but with some big differences.

      Car2Go uses "Smart" cars, which are a joint venture between Mercedes and Swatch. The cars are primarily gas with a few that are electric. Also, you rent them by the minute, and you can park them in any public parking space. Here in Portland it's $0.41c/minute or $15/hour.

      Reply
  8. Mark Anderson

    You might consider a SeaSucker bike rack to make the bike transport easier on the Autolib (or rented cars). You may have seen them at Interbike... I was given one of their Mini-Bomber two-bike racks for Christmas, and, so far so good!

    link to seasucker.com

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Hmm...that's very very tempting. And it seems relatively small - since storage is an issue for us.

      Reply
  9. Amedeo

    If you drive in Italian big cities, you would appreciate Frech "free" way of drive.
    :-D

    Reply
  10. This system is a lot like Car2Go here in DC: a fleet of Smart FourTwo cars that have the elusive (read: unique to them) "Zone 9" parking permits and can be parked anywhere in DC (including metered spaces, without having to pay the meter fee). They aren't good for much more than impromptu point-to-point trips, but they work.

    Reply
  11. Dave

    Very useful post, thanks! Quick follow up question, would the cars fit (4) adults? I recognize that it might not be ideal comfort but if they could deal with a tight space, would (4) adults be able to squeeze in?

    Reply
  12. ATM exchange

    I am planing my trip to London to visit my relatives and from there to Paris and from Paris to Loire to see the castles there, so my question is will i be able to rent a car from Paris to Loire and are there stations for refiling the electricity needed to run the car in Loire ?

    Reply
  13. Hello, to complement the Autolib service, I propose you to look at mobizen car-sharing that provides cars more adapted to carry some bigger groceries (Mercedes Class A, Renault Clio, Renault Kangoo and Toyota Yaris Hybrid) and permit you to go further (not limitation to stay in the Paris region). Monthly fee from 3€/month and the cars are available from 1,50€ + 0,26€/km. For example, you could have a full day in the famous Forêt de Fontainebleau for less than 60€ (gas and insurance included) or go to the Deauville beach for a week-end for less than 135€ (gas and insurance included). You make your reservation from Internet, you access and bring back the car at the same reserved parking anytime with your smartcard (24h/day) and you drive it as a regular car. If you need gas, don't worry there is a card in the car you can use because it's always gas included. And finally, you pay your invoice once a month. You could use Autolib for one way short trips in Paris and Mobizen when you need to go further or when you need to keep the car with you to be sure to have a way to come back from your destination. http://www.mobizen.fr

    Reply
  14. Simon

    I understand you can 'reserve' the autolib car before you pick it up via iPhone, Android etc.

    What I am wondering is, how long in advance can you reserve it? The day before? Hours?

    Thanks for the very helpful info :)

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      For the car itself, 30 minutes. For a parking spot, 90 minutes. So often times, when I pickup the car I'll actually then immediately reserve the parking spot that I just left (if I'm coming back to the same place relatively quickly). :)

      Reply
  15. Suzanne Grima

    We visited Paris in January (from Australia) and found the extra lane driving a little unnerving. I don't know how many times I swore under my breath as the taxi drivers maneuvered through traffic with mere millimeters between other cars. I also found it funny how many dings at the front and back of cars from parking too closely to one another. I also looked extra hard each time I saw someone running wondering if it might be you!

    Reply

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