When Socialists lost a French mayor's office to the Greens last March, the ripple effect spread as far as the Tokyo offices of the world's biggest carmaker.
Vandalised Toyotas stall car-sharing programme in France Before going to Grenoble, Toyota had tested its electric car-sharing experiment only in Toyota City (above), where vandalism is rare. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

When Socialists lost a French mayor's office to the Greens last March, the ripple effect spread as far as the Tokyo offices of the world's biggest carmaker. Toyota Motor was preparing to start its first electric car-sharing experiment outside Japan in Grenoble, a 160,000-person city at the foot of the Alps.

The incumbent had promised to install security cameras at all 27 planned charging stations for Toyota's i-Road, a quirky three-wheeled electric scooter that the company says can slalom through curves like one of Grenoble's skiers.

New mayor Eric Piolle, who had run on an anti-surveillance platform, baulked at fulfilling the previous administration's promises. After instances of vandalism in the programme's first three months slowed its introduction, there is hardly a sign of the vehicles in the city centre.

The rocky start illustrates some of the challenges global automakers face as they enter the electric-car market, where local support for infrastructure is key.

The i-Road is Toyota's effort to pioneer a new model for electric vehicles (EVs). With few places to recharge and limited driving ranges, the traditional approach of making cars and letting customers sort out how to use them has not worked well for battery-powered models.

Toyota instead is asking customers to pay to use its scooters, with the system designed to mesh with public transport. The Japanese company soon discovered that success would require strong political backing - even in a medium-sized city like Grenoble.

"Suddenly, we were told that security cameras were too intrusive," said Mr Didier Leroy, who heads Toyota's European operations. "Elected officials may change, but commitments should be fulfilled."

Mayor Piolle was notably absent at the Grenoble programme's unveiling in mid-September.

The previous government approved the three-year project unanimously, said Socialist lawmaker Michel Destot, who was mayor of Grenoble from 1995 to last year.

"The new mayor is an environmentalist, but he was elected with the backing of far-left parties, for which working with big capitalist corporations such as Toyota represents a problem," Mr Destot said. "He hasn't called the project into question, but he doesn't like to be photographed with Toyota."

Mayor Piolle did not reply to multiple interview requests by e-mail and phone.

Several i-Roads have been vandalised since their September debut, leading Toyota to install alarms. Police in Grenoble declined to comment. By the end of last month, about 30 of 70 planned i-Road and four-wheel Coms vehicles were on the road, and about half the charging stations had been installed.

Less than 30 per cent of the 170 people trained to drive the vehicles regularly used the service. There had been an average of about 50 bookings in each of the previous four weeks.

The Grenoble experiment is part of a broader Toyota concept called "harmonious mobility", in which the carmaker considers EVs as an extension of public transport. Before coming to Grenoble, Toyota had tested the idea only in Toyota City, where vandalism is rare and people often leave their bicycles unlocked.

"This looks fragile," said retired driving instructor Ahmed Boudjeriou, 70, eyeing an i-Road docked in front of a Grenoble store. "I have a 27-year-old son and I wouldn't recommend it to him."

A similar system from French billionaire Vincent Bollore has had more success in Paris. His grey metallic Bluecars are bigger, more robust and are intentionally left unpainted.

They have multiplied since his Autolib electric car-sharing service made its Paris debut in 2011, with the backing of former Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoe. Autolib now offers 900 charging stations and 2,900 Bluecars in the capital, and the Renault-Nissan alliance started a car- sharing joint venture with Mr Bollore in September after disappointing EV sales.

For Toyota, the key is to learn from the three-year Grenoble experiment as it sorts out the business case for EVs. At the very least, the i-Road has won some French fans.

"We're pioneers, that's for sure," said Mr Pierre-Louis Goirand, a technician for an engineering company, as he got out of an i-Road with his nine-year-old son. "The future is going to look like this."