A Belgian entrepreneur linked the concept of car-sharing with the electric car
Walking leisurely around Brussels, here and there one might notice futuristic-looking cars attached by an electric cord to small pillars near the sidewalk. At closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be small cars fed by electricity through charging points all over the city. These singular sights are the product of a man’s innovative project, which may very well prove to be the future of urban transport.
"Electric car? It's the future"
Regis Leruth chose his hometown of Brussels to start a pioneer project in the realm of transportation, the Zen Car. His idea was to link an increasingly common concept - car-sharing - with a developing and promising technology – the electric car. Car-sharing is an idea that has taken root in many European cities, including London where people became genuinely interested in it as the price of oil sky-rocketed in recent years. Bringing a car into the city is not as affordable as it once was and some companies have started to provide cars specifically for those people who just need it once in a while, to get them from point A to B, but not able or willing to bear the inherent costs associated with car ownership. The same car, once no longer needed by one costumer, is available for another to pick up, drive from A to B and release it to yet another costumer. What Mr. Leruth has done was pick this concept up and transform it into a very innovative and environmentally-friendly business that has the daunting goal of transforming the way people move about on a daily basis.
When asked about the choice of the electric car, Leruth simply says, “It’s the future.” He further explains that the electric car is quite suitable for an urban environment. It is silent and does not emit any gases or pollution, meaning that as its use increases both the noise and the air pollution decrease, contributing to making the city a nicer place to just breathe in. The Zen Car is small, facilitating its rolling around the city and squeezing into any parking space available, and it provides enough autonomy for the typical short-distance mobility required within cities.
"We have to establish a grid of charging points all over the city where there were none"
But the source of its many advantages is also the source of its greatest enemy thus far. As an electric vehicle, it needs electric charging points to fill up its battery. Lerouth recounts that this was a major obstacle that he had to face.
“A regular car-sharing service only needs to worry about the supply of cars. That is not the case with an electric car-sharing service as we have to establish a grid of charging points all over the city where there were none,” he explained.
Creating such a grid was where it got trickier. Getting regional and federal authorities to get excited about the idea of an electric car-sharing service was not difficult as the project has many potential benefits including the reduction of city traffic – and Brussels has a severe case of this illness, decreasing air and noise pollution as well as the appeal of an avant-garde project, but things were not so simple. The daunting task of setting up a whole charging grid, vital to making the project viable, put a damper on the authorities’ enthusiasm over the electric car-sharing service. And then, an additional problem arose – how would the company ensure there would always be room to park near a charging station?
The answer rested in a partnership with Interparking and Belgacom. The latter, a Belgian electrical company, was essential for the setting up of the charging points across the capital, while Interparking, a company that owns many of Brussels’ parking lots and parking spaces along the roads, proved to be the solution to space for electric charging. By allowing Zen Car to install charging points in some of its parking lots, most of which are crucially situated in the city, for example near shopping malls, important avenues or business centres, Interparking became an important piece of Zen Car’s electric revolution.
With everything in place, how exactly does the electric car-sharing work? Zen Car has several charging poles in Brussels with electric cars attached. People pay a subscription fee and receive a membership card, which allows them to reserve and unlock the cars. Whenever they need a car, they can rent one online or over the phone and pick it up at the nearest charging point. The intent is then to leave it at another one of the charging stations for the car to fill up its battery and be ready for the next client to be able to use.
Leruth’s marketing strategy has mainly consisted of promoting the service to companies. Zen Car will often arrange “open days” where it meets with interested employers, explains the concept and lets employees have a test drive in one of the electric cars. This serves the purpose of getting people hooked on the car-sharing service but also, and most importantly, of dispelling some myths that are still attached to this very new technology.
“We wanted to let people drive the cars themselves, see how it really is, and then make their minds up on how convenient it is”
People will often prove enthusiastic, albeit a little suspicious, about an electric car. They question if they will be able to drive it if it has got no engine or gears or if will it be too difficult to manoeuvre, but the CEO of Zen Car reveals that the most common myth that people cling to is the question of the car’s autonomy.
“People show interest in this concept but they are always sceptical about the autonomy of the car. But when I ask how many kilometres do they usually travel to and from work they will say 20!”
Market inquiries have found that most people who live in cities travel less than 50 kilometres a day, many much below this number. With batteries that can currently feed an electric car for up to 120 kilometres, the question of autonomy quickly becomes a non-issue. Nevertheless, the availability of charging points is.
When enquired about his future plans for Zen Car, Leruth’s immediate answer is the expansion of the charging grid. Considering that charging points are where the electric cars are stationed, for the service to be viable, there needs to be a charging point virtually next to every point of interest in the city. People want to be taken from point A to B conveniently, and so extending the covered areas by increasing the number of charging poles is crucial for the business to succeed.
Leruth also reveals that an expansion to other Belgian cities and across borders is very near. Some countries have already expressed their interest in adopting the concept of electric car-sharing and the expectation is that a southern European country will be the first to take it up. Belgian cities like Antwerp or Leuven, famous for being big university centres in Belgium, also look keen to jump on the green bandwagon.