While you might expect a city-wide electric car-sharing service in Paris--or perhaps progressive havens like San Francisco or Santa Monica--the midwestern city of Indianapolis may not be the first such place you'd look for an all-electric car-sharing plan.
Nevertheless, the city announced the BlueIndy car-sharing service this week; it will launch for customer use in December, and we've driven a prototype Bollore BlueCar to see how it works.
On Wednesday, we drove around downtown Indianapolis for half an hour while chatting with the energetic Herve Muller, vice president and general manager of BlueSolutions, which will operate the system.
BlueIndy electric-car sharing station and European Bollore BlueCar, Indianapolis, Indiana, May 2014Enlarge Photo
If the BlueCar looks vaguely familiar, it's because it's the same vehicle used in the very successful Parisian Autolib system.
To say it's basic would understate the case; while it's a perfectly competent three-door, four-seat compact electric hatchback, its no-frills approach is slightly reminiscent of the "econoboxes" sold 20 years ago.
Basic car, serious software
But the plain appearance belies some sophisticated car-sharing software and a few clever design features.
It's clear that these are short-duty, around-town, convenience-based appliances--not cars you'd choose to drive across the state in.
CitiBike NYC racks in Manhattan, by Margaret Bedore (CC 3.0)Enlarge Photo
In other words, they're the automotive equivalent in the Midwest to the CitiBike bike-sharing system in New York City, whose sturdy bright blue bicycles can be seen all over lower Manhattan piloted by younger New Yorkers.
(The CitiBikes have been a huge hipster hit among younger residents, but getting tourists to use them has been much harder than expected.)
Charging stations, 'bubble' kiosks
Every BlueIndy car-sharing location--200 are planned--will have five parking spots along the curb, each with a charging station whose cable sits under a cover that unlocks once a registered user touches the membership card to the RFID reader.
In the prototype location set up on Washington Street, there is also a curved-roof kiosk--Muller refers to it as "the bubble"--where new users can enroll via videoconference with a remote service center. There will be 20 of those at central, high-traffic locations as well.
Bolloré BlueCar electric car used for Autolib' car-sharing service in Paris, September 2012Enlarge Photo
For the December launch, BlueIndy plans to have 25 locations up and running, each with five cars and charging stations. Then it will add new locations weekly throughout 2015.
The enrollment takes about five minutes, he says, and then a validated membership card drops into a slot once registration is complete.
Pricing is still being set, Muller said, but he expects a weekly membership to be $10 to $15, or an annual one--paid up front--to work out to roughly $13 a month.
Then usage fees will start at $5 for 20 minutes, with an hour costing $15. Most usage will be less than an hour, underscoring the short-term sharing appeal.
Tap the card
Users can reserve a BlueCar on the web or via smartphone app--or simply by walking up to any location that has cars.
The software figures out the BlueIndy location closest to their destination; they simply unplug the car, drive it from one site to the next, plug it back in, and walk away. Billing is handled automatically.
(Reserving a car ahead of time is a better way to guarantee availability; it's possible that a site may have one or two cars parked there, but they will have been reserved already.)
Making the reservation requires the user to respond to three basic legal questions--basically, you have a valid driver's license, you understand the risks, and you're not drunk or high--and then the system assigns you a specific car, say, "Slot 03."