By Amanda Durish Cook
INDIANAPOLIS — Coming off a bumpy 2016, Indianapolis’ first-in-the-nation electric car-sharing service is looking to resume its expansion with the construction of new charging stations and a campaign to attract more members.
And the French company backing the BlueIndy program hopes to transplant the model to California, which is aggressively pursuing the adoption of electric vehicles as part of its policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Launched by the Bolloré Group in September 2015, BlueIndy boasts about 300 cars and 85 five-port charging stations around the Indiana capital. The company has planned for an additional 200 cars and 115 stations, but events last year halted expansion.
“We haven’t changed the goal, but the construction slowed down a lot in 2016,” BlueIndy President Hervé Muller said in an interview. “We had to deal with some political issues and had to sign a contract with the city.”
BlueIndy put a hold on construction during most the year while negotiating an agreement with the Indianapolis City-County Council, which contended that the process for placing stations lacked transparency. Business owners also complained the stations were taking up parking spaces near their storefronts.
The company and the council eventually settled on a franchise agreement last fall that allows the city to possibly relocate up to seven stations and requires the company to pay the city $45,000 per year to compensate for lost parking meters. Business owners must show that they have suffered financially to get a charging station moved.
“That was unfortunate and it took a lot of tension and most of 2016 to negotiate the agreement,” Muller said. “We think that phase is behind us, learning the political environment. That page has turned.”
Rideshares in Sync with Public Transit
BlueIndy has yet to uproot any charging stations, although a recently voter-approved rapid transit bus route might require some relocations. Still, Muller is not concerned that buses will infringe on his company’s growth.
“The two are not competing,” he said. “If you need to go somewhere, and you don’t have a car, what are your options? On some days instead of using the bus, you might use the cars. We think it’s all complementary. It’s to give options to people who don’t own a car or don’t want to own a car.”
Muller said Bolloré’s AutoLib’ sharing service happily coexists with the expansive public transit in Paris, which he considers the company’s showcase city.
“There’s no debate there whether we are taking a rider from public transit,” he said. Bolloré has similar rideshare services in Lyon and Bordeaux in France; London; and Turin, Italy. The company will soon expand to Singapore.
The company is currently building five new charging stations in Indianapolis and awaiting word on a backlog of notices submitted to the city for review of prospective locations. Each station costs anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.
Bolloré has converted its Midwestern host into an unlikely early adopter of EV technology. The company’s 400-plus public chargers give Indianapolis the distinction of having the largest network of public charging stations of any U.S. city. While the number of private charging stations in Los Angeles might currently outstrip those in the Indiana city, Muller noted that BlueIndy charging stations can be used by anyone.
Navigating the American political landscape for construction approval is not unlike working with government officials in France, Muller said.
“Our goal is to work well with local political power. That’s why we’re selective about the cities we go to,” he said. “It is a transformation of the city, and we do believe that electric vehicle sharing must happen in the public right of way.”
Bolloré has a 15-year contract with Indianapolis and anticipates investing a total of $41 million in BlueIndy, with the city funding $6 million and Indianapolis Power and Light contributing about $3 million. The company has hired about 40 full-time and part-time staff in Indianapolis to run the program and has contracted with local construction unions to erect charging stations.
Residents can sign up for membership at a charging station kiosk or the BlueIndy website, and reserve cars or charging spots via the website or an app. Members are charged according to a metered payment structure based on the first 20 minutes of use and a per-minute charge thereafter. Membership packages, which come with a monthly fee, reduce the per-minute charge by up to half. A daily rental, requiring no commitment, costs $8 for the first 20 minutes, then 40 cents/minute. With a one-year membership (about $120), the charge is $4 for the first 20 minutes and 20 cents/minute afterward.
BlueIndy is now focused on expanding its membership, currently 1,500 active members that take about 1,000 rides per week.
“That is really the measure of the service — how often the cars are used,” Muller said.
While the company doesn’t maintain detailed demographics on its current users, it does collect information through member surveys, which Muller said shows “a large contingent of young users, millennials and students,” as well as retired people and families that want to become a one-car family. The company last year also rolled out targeted discounts to encourage college students to join.
Muller estimates that BlueIndy’s profitability is still a few years out: “The nature of our business is a big infrastructure investment. We know that we’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars. We generally anticipate that it takes five to seven years to break even and after that we can recoup our investment.”
Bolloré Goes West
Having gained a foothold in the U.S., Bolloré is now eyeing a West Coast expansion with a BlueLA pilot program underway that will consist of 100 vehicles and 200 charging ports by the end of spring.
“Los Angeles is a fantastic city for our service,” Muller said. “We had always envisioned to employ our service in California. It’s starting as a pilot, but there’s a long-term vision to deploy a service similar to what we have in Paris or Singapore.”
The California Air Resources Board granted Los Angeles $1.6 million for the pilot, but Muller said Bolloré expects a similar 80-20 funding split like that in Indianapolis, with the company paying the lion’s share for construction and cars, and the city and local utilities picking up the rest.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the stations will target low-income areas where residents are less likely to own cars. “We are so proud that we can now launch the nation’s first pilot program for electric vehicle sharing in disadvantaged communities. That is real progress,” Garcetti said.
Bolloré is not currently considering any other U.S. cities for expansion.
“We make a big investment in the charging infrastructure, so we make a careful decision,” Muller explained.
Different Locations, Same Cars
The EVs used for the service — Bolloré’s Bluecars — are nearly identical worldwide. The two-door, four-seater hatchback was developed with Italian automotive design firm Pininfarina and is manufactured in Italy. The cars have a top speed of 81 mph and an on-board computer for navigation.
While the Bluecars’ 30-kWh lithium metal polymer batteries can last for a 150-mile trip on a single charge, Muller said the total useful life of the battery is still unknown because the technology is so new. The batteries, which are produced in Bolloré’s factories, passed the five-year mark in 2016 in France with heavy use, and the company has yet to replace any of the recyclable batteries.
“We think it should outlast most batteries on the market. There is no known end of life for the batteries right now. We can say that they are exceeding our expectations,” Muller said.