Far from high-tech Silicon Valley or hipster Austin, Texas, the largest all-electric car-sharing service is being built.

If your second guess is Portland or Brooklyn, keep guessing…and moving inland. Indianapolis, the nation's twelfth largest city, will install 1,200 charging stations at about 200 locations to support 500 electric vehicles. The project is expected to be up and running within a year.

Indianapolis is hardly a hotbed of alternative transportation. It does have a bus system, but “we have one of the worst ranked bus services in the country for a city our size,” said Paul Mitchell, president and CEO of Energy Systems Network (ESN), a nonprofit clean technology initiative that is working on the EV project in Indianapolis. It was not one of the twenty-one metro areas chosen by the Department of Energy as part of the EV Project.

The city does have other ties to the burgeoning electric vehicle industry, dating back to General Motor’s EV1. The powertrain for that car was built in Indianapolis. Allison Transmission, which makes electric buses, is based in the city. Mayor Greg Ballard signed an order in December for the entire municipal fleet (except police cruisers) to be electric or plug-in hybrid by 2025. The city’s heavy-duty vehicles will have to convert to CNG, and the city is partnering with automakers to develop a hybrid police car. But Ballard wanted to do more.

The car-sharing service is being envisioned as a type of mass transit for the city of more than 800,000. It suits a Midwestern city that is less dense and less visited than many of its coastal counterparts. Car ownership rates are generally high, but about 10 percent of the population does not own a vehicle, according to Mitchell. More importantly, the city wants to appeal to a generation of young professionals that is less likely to own a car than their parents.

To ensure that there would be enough people to use it, ESN, the implementation partner for the project, first turned to the universities and large companies (Eli Lilly, Simon Malls) to see if there was interest in such a service. There was.

With interest and support from the mayor, now they needed a technology partner. Indianapolis chose Bolloré Group, which is eager to get into the North American market after successfully implementing Paris’ all-electric car-sharing service, Autolib, in less than a year.

Bolloré is investing about $35 million to launch the program by next year. It will provide the kiosks for check-in and purchase the 500 vehicles, which will be a U.S.-made car, likely the Nissan Leaf or the electric Ford Focus. The French-based conglomerate will also provide 1,200 Level 2 charging stations across 200 locations and operate the program.

“This program provides a great opportunity for downtown workers, residents and visitors to get around town in a car without owning one,” said Mayor Ballard. “This service allows a person, government or company to only pay for a car when they need and want it. They aren’t paying for fuel, insurance, maintenance and parking costs when the vehicle is not in use.”

Unlike other car sharing services like Zipcar, the cost of renting the car accrues by the minute, from the time you unplug it to the time you plug it back in. Prices have not been set yet. In France, the cost is about $0.225 per minute with a $16 monthly fee. The average trip is about 10 to 12 minutes, said Mitchell, who has used the Autolib service in the past.

Indianapolis will not be the first effort at e-car sharing in the U.S., although it will be the largest. Car2go, which Daimler operates in San Diego and Austin, TX, also runs on a per-minute basis. But instead of the small smart cars being parked at designated charging stations, they can be parked anywhere; Car2go employees make the rounds and pick the cars up later if they need to be redistributed.

In Paris, however, the car-charging stations are at fixed locations, usually within a quarter-mile of each other. Indianapolis is still working out the exact locations, but Mitchell estimated the stations may be a little farther apart outside of downtown. The program will cover the entire city, with a focus on the areas where demand is expected to be greatest, such as around universities and downtown.

There are even talks of linking the system with bicycles or e-bikes, for the last half-mile or so. “This will be an interesting social science experiment,” he said. “I’m wondering whether people will just get in them to go somewhere,” such as a heading to a new restaurant that would be too long of a walk on a lunch break.

The notion of a Parisian-inspired, environmentally friendly, sharing-minded community is not just a nice thought by some fringe group of idealists; it’s central to the city leaders' efforts to keep Indianapolis vibrant and relevant. “There are very few Midwest cities that are growing,” said Mitchell. “Our goal is to attract talent.”

Tags: autolib, bolloré group, car sharing, car2go, electric car sharing, electric vehicles, indianapolis