Silent, solid and speedy – the latest revolution to hit Paris

John Lichfield tests one of the new 'help-yourself' hire cars

Paris, a city which has seen many revolutions, claims that it is on the cusp of another transformation – one that will change the world's relationship with the car for good.

At midday yesterday, the first help-yourself, electrically-powered hire cars were being tested on the streets of the French capital. The Mayor of Paris and the French billionaire who has sponsored the €250m (£215m) Autolib scheme believe that this will be the first step in an urban and suburban sea change.

As revolutions go, it is an eerily silent one. The Independent tested one of the four-seater Autolib cars last week. They are as solid and as nippy and as manoeuvrable as any normal, petrol-driven, urban runabout. But they are unnervingly silent, even quieter than a milk float or a dodgem car. The dodgem analogy is appropriate. A score of French and foreign journalists managed to steer the silver cars without mishap around a test track in the western Paris suburbs, a relatively straightforward task. But in limited numbers from this weekend – to be followed with a full rollout from 5 December – the Autolib cars will be let loose on one of the biggest dodgem tracks in the world: the streets of the French capital and its suburban satellite towns.

Autolib, the brain-child of the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, will work on roughly the same principles as Velib, the Paris do-it-yourself bicycle hire scheme launched in 2007. The Velib has inspired similar schemes in other cities, including London's "Boris Bikes".

Up to 3,000 cars will eventually be available at 800 docking stations on the streets, or in underground car-parks, in Paris and 46 suburban towns. You pick up one of the unpainted, metallic-finish cars at any docking station or book it by phone or internet. You can book ahead on an onboard computer to reserve a docking space near your destination.

The cars are based on the Franco-Canadian made, Italian-designed "Bluecars" which will soon be available commercially. They can travel at up to 80mph for 150 miles before they need recharging. They are fitted with a radio, a satellite navigation system and a permanent link to Autolib mission control near Versailles.

After paying an annual fee of Euros 144, an "autolibbeur" will be able to drive an electric car from a cost of €5 for the first half-hour. Eighty per cent of the €250m investment has been borne by the French tycoon Vincent Bolloré, whose group is among the world's leading investors in electric cars. Mr Bolloré said the Autolib scheme would be the beginning of an urban revolution.

A success for Autolib would provide a boost to the wider electric car industry, which would help France and the rest of the world meet its carbon emission targets, he said.

It would also, "signal the end of the obsession with individual car-ownership" and encourage city and suburban dwellers to embrace the idea of "car-sharing". The Assistant Mayor of Paris, Annick Lepetit, said that the city hoped that, when the scheme was fully operational in 2013, it would take 22,500 private cars off the streets of the capital.

But Green politicians are unconvinced by the claim. And even if it is feasible, the basic concept has angered Parisian taxi drivers and provoked legal challenges from car-hire companies.

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