Renault suspends officials over electric vehicles secrets

A spokeswoman for Renault confirmed it had suspended three senior managers over unspecified ethical issues, which she described as "serious matters." Sources who asked not to be named told AFP the suspensions were linked to the alleged leaking of company secrets. "It centres on the electric car," a source close to the car maker told AFP on Wednesday.

Renault has staked its future on electric cars as automakers face up to rising demand for more environmentally friendly modes of transport, aiming to mass produce them for the general market. The suspensions were the latest in a series of industrial espionage scandals to hit France’s huge and strategically important auto industry.

"In late August 2010, an ethical alert was brought to the attention of the compliance committee," a Renault spokeswoman told AFP on Tuesday. "The investigation that followed led to the suspension of three Renault executives," she said, without giving further details.

She added Wednesday that Renault had not made any formal complaint in the affair. Sources said that those suspended had all headed electric vehicles projects and one was a member of the company’s management committee, a 30-strong panel of top managers headed by chief executive Carlos Ghosn.

The suspension without pay of the staff is a first step towards possible disciplinary action. The three were required to leave their offices on Monday, the sources said. Renault plans to launch electric versions of its Fluence model priced at about 25,000 euros (34,000 dollars) and its Kangoo Express for about 20,000 euros in mid-2011, and its smaller Twizy and Zoe models in late 2011 and 2012.

It forecasts that electric cars will make up 10 percent of the market by 2020. Along with its Japanese partner Nissan, it is investing 200 million euros a year in the programme. Nissan has already launched an all-electric car for the mass market, the Leaf, in Japan and the United States, where it sold out on pre-orders. The Leaf is set to be launched in select European markets in early 2011.

Other major car makers are in on the act, preparing to launch electric cars. Among Renault’s French competitors, Citroen is making the C-Zero and Peugeot the iON. Tata of India is preparing to launch the Vista EV. Mercedes-Benz of Germany has an electric smart car, the Fortwo ED, while in Japan Mitsubishi has the iMiEV and Toyota the Prius Plug-in.

In an earlier scandal in 2007, Renault brought charges for industrial espionage after a magazine published pictures and plans for two of new models it was developing. Industrial espionage scandals have also struck French tyre maker Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo.