2011 has been touted as the year when electric cars will well and truly break into the public consciousness. Unfortunately for Renault, the story making all the headlines so far hasn't been the launch of one of its upcoming Z.E. models, but the news of industrial espionage and selling technical secrets to a Chinese company.

Now, prosecutors have launched an inquiry into the case, which as so far resulted in the dismissal of three top Renault employees.

The story so far

Two weeks ago, three Renault executives were suspended without pay after un-named sources claimed they had been passing information on Renault's large electric car program to a Chinese rival.

Renault, and partner company Nissan, have spent more than $5 billion on their electric car development programs and aim to launch eight electric vehicles over the next four years.

A week ago, Renault announced that it had summoned three company managers under charges of industrial espionage.

Latest developments

Renault Twizy Concept

Renault Twizy Concept

In the last few days, French prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin has begun inquiries into the espionage scandal. Renault claims that its intellectual assets are now safe, though it had earlier claimed that a group in China had access to some key information on the French company's electric program. French Industry Minister Eric Besson has said there has been no evidence so far to link the story to China.

However, Besson himself has claimed earlier in the month that the situation is an example of "economic war".

"The expression 'economic war', while sometimes outrageous, for once is appropriate. It [the Renault case] appears to concern the electric car, but I do not want to go further."

Legal action

Two of the fired Renault employees are now in the process of taking legal action against the marque for what they claim is defamation. Bertrand Rochette, who worked under the former vice president of advanced engineering Michel Balthazard (who was also fired) first knew about his alleged involvement in the French press before receiving his dismissal letter. Rochette's lawyer claims Renault have not yet produced any evidence against Rochette.

Balthazard himself, accused of passing strategic information in exchange for bribes, has categorically denied the charges. The third executive fired by Renault, deputy head of Renault's electric vehicle programme Matthieu Tenenbaum, is considering his next move, his lawyer has said.

Clearly, this is a story that will run and run. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing the fruits of Renault-Nissan's labour over the next few years.

[French Tribune, AFP, Reuters]