Au Revoir Swampy
After almost a dozen years of loyal service, I finally sold my little Renault Clio, Swampy (named because of its swamp-green color). I only used it once or twice a year, but I always had to remember to pay the weekly residential street parking meter (and the prices went up in 2013) or end up getting fined €17 (up from €11 in 2012). And my car was almost 17 years old, completely manual (including the steering, fun when parallel parking), sans air-conditioning, and prone to dead batteries (really convenient on that one day each year I really need it).
The last straw came when I returned from vacation in January during a heavy Parisian snowfall to find a dead car with a ticket (given during the storm, no less) and two days before an expired controle technique (like an emissions test, necessary even if the car is parked on the street). I paid to have it jump-started, got the smashed side-view mirror replaced, passed the controle technique, and practically gave it away just to get it off my hands.
And of course a week later my friend needs help moving some stuff. Have you ever tried getting a taxi to put a bunch of things in the trunk that are obviously not suitcases? They’re none too keen.
Then the idea occurred to go ahead and get an AutoLib’ subscription. I had been eying them during my morning dog walkies, the cute little electric Blue Cars that, like the Vélib’ bike-share system, took over about 3000 parking spots in the city. That used to be really annoying when I had a car. Now I was quite happy they were all over the place.
What it Costs to Use AutoLib'
I went online to check out the rates. Just like Vélib’, the AutoLib’ subscriptions are annual (€144), monthly (€30), weekly (€15), or daily (€10). Then you simply pay when you use the car in 30-minute increments (pro-rata): €5 for annual pass holders, €6 for monthly, and €7 for weekly or daily. Since they’re electric, no gas is necessary.
How to Sign Up for AutoLib'
I actually happened to be looking at the website on Saturday when they had a one-day special on annual passes for just €99 (this happens regularly, check back often if you're interested), so I signed up right away. You can do this online or at one of the little subscription kiosks around Paris. All you need is a credit card, photo ID, and a driver’s license (EU or international). If you go to a kiosk, there’s an actual live human on the video screen telling you what to do, and you get your temporary card right away. If you do it all online you get the card in the mail. I actually filled everything out online and paid with my credit card, then went to a kiosk to scan my documents and get the card right away. It took about 10 minutes, half of that waiting for the “next available agent”.
And I should mention AutoLib' instructions, information and services are in English as well as French.
Getting Your Blue Car
And that was it. I downloaded the free AutoLib’ app to my Android and used it to find and reserve the nearest available car (you can also do this online). You have 30 minutes to pickup the car or cancel the reservation or it will start charging you for the car. You can do the same thing for finding an empty space to plug the car back in (literally, there’s a plug on a long cord that goes into the spot where you’d normally put gas), and in that case you get 90 minutes advance reservation time.
Using the Blue Car
So with my little temporary paper badge, I just walked up to the station and waved it in front of the screen and it asked for my PIN and then told me which car was mine. I waved the badge in front of the little sensor by the door and it unlocked. I unplugged the car, got inside, found the key (attached by a wire) and turned it in the ignition.
If you’re used to driving a manual transmission, it takes a minute to get used to automatic cars. There are only three positions o the stick: drive, park, reverse. There’s no engine noise. There’s a little screen that walks you through how the car works. It also is a GPS and radio. I didn’t bother with that because I was in a hurry, so I zoomed off.
Sucky acceleration, excellent brakes!
Double-parked à la Parisienne in the bus lane in front of my friend’s apartment (well, it was Sunday), I put on the hazards, turned off the ignition, and got out of the car. Waving the badge over the door sensor locked it.
Live Assistance at the Push of the Blue Button
When I came back down with my pile of books and a free-standing A/C unit (can’t wait for summer!), I could not figure out how on earth to open the trunk. I looked all over the dashboard and under the steering column and didn’t see it. So I pushed the little blue call button on the dashboard, and five seconds later an AutoLib’ agent was there to help me. After I confirmed my identity she told me it was under the seat (duh).
Returning the Blue Car
I packed up the car, which is actually pretty spacious, and headed out. Unlike a Smart Car, it has room for four adults (two in the back seat) and a small hatchback trunk. I made two other stops before returning the car to a station right by my flat (you can return it to a different station than the one where you picked it up). I just pulled into the parking place, waved my badge over the little box, and when it flashed green I pulled out the plug and stuck it back into the car. I immediately got a text message from AutoLib confirming I had returned the car, and that the 72-minute rental cost me €12, charged to my credit card.
I am NEVER using a taxi again, woo hoo!
Some things to consider before signing up for AutoLib'
I have a French driver’s license, French credit card, and a French National ID card. The process may take longer if you have foreign documents. If anyone has experience with this, let me know.
The Blue Cars do not have A/C. Yeah, I know. But some day it just has to get warm again, right?
You cannot leave the Ile-de-France department limits (you’re being tracked by GPS; they will “call” you if you get close to the limits).
There are only a few stations in the ‘burbs (none in Versailles, nor at either major airport), and don’t forget it’s running on a battery, so not sure how useful it would be for “day trips to the countryside”.
I have not tested the “post-2am-on-Saturday-night” availability, but will let you know if I manage to replace expensive taxi rides by using AutoLib’ on a regular basis.