RENAULT, a car manufacturer frustrated by the speed at which electric car chargers are being installed across France, is to fund some of the missing infrastructure itself. A century after French tyre maker Michelin issued road signs, Renault and Japanese affiliate Nissan are preparing to hand out charging stations for installation in public spaces.
"It is not our job to install chargers, but somebody has to kick-start the market," says Thierry Koskas, the head of Renault's electric vehicle programme. The allied car makers, both headed by CEO Carlos Ghosn, will give away almost 1000 fast chargers costing about ?5000 each, mostly in France. They will go to supermarkets, car parks and other public spaces under private ownership. Among major European countries, the infrastructure delays are worst in Renault's domestic market - France has spent only 5% of a ?50m fund earmarked for public charging networks.
Among major car companies and groupings, Renault-Nissan has staked the most on electric cars, investing ?4bn in their development and production.
France, a vocal supporter of the technology and Renault's biggest shareholder with a 15% stake, aims to build 75000 charging spots by 2015.
Concerns are mounting over the country's readiness for the launch of the flagship Renault Zoe later this year, a key test of Ghosn's belief that electric car sales will rise steadily to claim 10% of the global market by 2020. Unlike Renault's existing Fluence and Kangoo battery cars, adapted from conventional models with government and company fleets in mind, the new subcompact is designed from scratch as an electric car and is pitched squarely at individual consumers.
"Initial uptake of electric cars has been slow," says London-based IHS Automotive analyst Tim Urquhart, who believes their shaky debut partly reflects the limited available choice.
"The relatively small numbers are explainable but still not comfortable viewing for Nissan and Renault. High prices and low levels of infrastructure pose a big stumbling block."
Electric models, which carry a ?5000 subsidy, accounted for 0,24% of French registrations in the first quarter. Western Europe recorded 11000 deliveries last year, less than 0,1% of the region's car market. Nissan, 43,4% -owned by Renault, has seen its battery-powered Leaf wilt after less than a year, with volumes dropping sharply after filling advance orders from early adopters.
"Now the car makers are having to step in because the public sector is moving too slowly," Roudier says. "As people begin to use the chargers they provide, town halls will come under pressure to buy more and provide a proper network."
As part of its initiative, Renault has signed a deal with family-owned retailer E Leclerc to equip 500 of its French hypermarkets with chargers by 2015. Other car makers, such as General Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Toyota, are more bullish about plug-in hybrids that combine a combustion engine with an electric powertrain and battery. They too stand to benefit from a broader charging network.
"Most customers will recharge at home or at work almost all the time," Koskas says. "But they still want the reassurance that they are covered when they break with that routine."