Special Coverage

Frankfurt Auto Show

FRANKFURT – For more than a year, Renault SA has been gathering commitments from cities, regions and countries to prepare an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

After teaching politicians about the benefits and weaknesses of transportation by battery, the French auto maker has turned toward teaching the customer, with a huge display at the Frankfurt auto show of how its EVs will work.

“We have crossed the Rubicon,” says a grinning Renault Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata after his boss, CEO Carlos Ghosn, unveils four zero-emission concept cars in a brightly lit display.

When Julius Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon river in Italy in 49 BC, it was considered an aggressive act of war, and Renault wants to be the global leader in electric cars.

The family of zero-emission concepts (Fluence 4-door, Zoe 3-door, Kangoo light utility vehicle and oddball Twizy scooter-car) greet the public here at the show. All four preface the range that Renault will introduce in 2011 and 2012, says Philippe Klein, executive vice president-product planning and programs.

“There is still significant skepticism” about electric vehicles, Klein tells Ward’s. But he insists Renault needs to demonstrate to governments “the political benefit of participating in a cleaner planet.”

The auto maker also wants to teach the general public about EVs, how they will be recharged and why they make sense.

Professionally operated fleets will be the first big customers, because fleet owners look at lifetime costs. Klein says the payoff in France for delivery companies that can use the Kangoo Z.E. will come at 10,000 to 15,000 km (6,200 to 9,300 miles) a year over five years, and “the more kilometers a year, the more it improves.”

Renault’s service partner for Israel and Denmark, California-based Better Place, displays on Renault’s stand its “Quick-Drop” station that can change a used battery for a full one in three minutes.

In Israel, 100 such stations will allow a driver to go virtually anywhere in an electric Fluence.

In the Paris area, says Klein, 10 to 20 such stations could allow a taxi fleet to use the Fluence Z.E. taxis to travel the typical 93 to 186 miles (150 to 300 km) a day around the capital, and the Fluence has a range of 100 miles (160 km) on a single charge.

Displays on the stand explain quick charging and regular charging and how a range of 160 km meets typical driver needs.

“In Europe, 80% of daily trips are below 60 km (37 miles),” Klein says.

Families with a second car rarely use it for trips over 62 miles (100 km). Even when considering only battery charging at home, “for 20% of the vehicles in Europe, the autonomy of an electric vehicle would be sufficient.”

However, Klein argues quick-charge stations are needed to overcome the emotional barrier of the possibility of running out of energy, or for people who might want to take an electric car on a longer trip.

Renault has been working within the ACEA auto makers’ association to create standards for rapid-charging stations and plugs so the vehicles coming from many sources can share a single infrastructure. But for the moment, no one else wants to share Renault’s battery exchange idea.

Klein says the mechanism can handle different battery shapes, but auto makers would need to use the same connecting system if they wanted to achieve a standard. The idea of swapping batteries is critical for Shah Agassi, the founder of Better Place. His company is building the stations in Israel as well as regular recharging points.

The Fluence and Zoe are the only Renaults designed for the quick-drop stations.

The Fluence is the vehicle that allowed Renault’s pioneering agreement to industrialize electric cars in Israel. Renault and Better Place say they will sell 100,000 units in the first five years after it comes to market in 2011.

The Kangoo and Zoe are in the normal segments of light utility vehicles and urban cars, but the Twizy is an innovative idea for future city transportation: a narrow 4-wheel, 2-seat car, in which the passenger rides behind the driver.

“It’s something we think seriously about because it is a good answer for the city,” Klein says. “The Twizy has the agility of a scooter and the stability of a car.

One of the popular scooters in Paris is a 3-wheel Piaggio, which stays upright when stopped, without the driver putting his foot down.

With Renault’s four EVs, says Klein, “we are trying to cover the four main uses we see.”