Renault: stolen secrets included details of how to build lithium ion batteries for electric cars

Three Renault executives, including one member of its management committee, were suspended on Monday over the leaking of data, which prompted the government to warn of a widespread risk to French industry. The executives are suspected of leaking information related to the high-profile electric vehicle programme, a key plank of the carmaker’s strategy in which it is investing billions of euros together with Japanese partner Nissan.

French carmaker Renault insists that vital secrets about its flagship electric car programme are safe, despite an alleged industrial spying scandal. The company’s number two, Patrick Pélata, told Le Monde newspaper that some information had been leaked. Renault had been “the victim of an organised international network” looking for “economic, technological and strategic information”, he said.

The French government meanwhile refused to confirm reports that the three managers were supplying details of the company’s electric cars to China. The French government is investigating whether Chinese interests have been spying on the Renault car-making electric car industry, officials said.

Reports in the French media speak of a sophisticated network, with money paid into foreign bank accounts in exchange for details about patents. The stakes are enormous for Renault, which is seeking to become the world leader in the electric car market.

Renault number two Patrick Pelata told Saturday’s Le Monde daily that the inquiry that led to the suspensions had concluded that the carmaker was faced with "an organised system of collecting economic, technological and strategic information to serve foreign interests". "Renault is a victim of an organised international network" run by "professionals," Pelata said.

But he said that "no nugget of technological or strategic information, including almost 200 patents registered or on the point of being registered, has filtered out". The research programme on a new generation of lithium ion batteries was also not concerned, Pelata said, adding that the electric vehicle development programme would carry on as planned.

But he admitted that details of the design and costs of the electric vehicles could have been leaked. "That is serious but less than if the damage had concerned the technology," he said. Pelata confirmed that Renault would be taking legal action and said the three managers would be undergoing interviews preparatory to being sacked.

Pelata pointed no fingers at any country linked to the spying and Industry Minister Eric Besson refused Saturday to confirm reports that Renault and the French secret service suspect Chinese involvement. "At this stage I cannot say that and only an inquiry could do so," he told Europe 1 radio. Weekly news magazine Le Point said Friday that the stolen secrets included details of how to build batteries for electric vehicles.

A French automobile sub-contractor had acted as an intermediary with the Chinese buyers, Le Point reported on its website, while Le Monde said the system set up was "quite sophisticated". The daily said dummy companies had been set up and foreign bank accounts opened into which large sums of cash were regularly paid.

Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan have staked their future on electric vehicles and plan to launch several models by 2014 to meet the rapidly rising demand for more environmentally-friendly methods of transport. They have invested four billion euros (5.2 billion dollars) in the programme.

The suspensions are the latest in a series of industrial espionage shocks to hit France’s strategically important auto sector, which employs 10 percent of the entire French workforce. Tyre manufacturer Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo have also been targets of spying.

Besson said Thursday the country was the target of "economic war" and called for firms that receive state aid for research and development to boost their protection against espionage. The French government used to own Renault and still has a 15 percent stake in the company, which makes trucks, buses and agricultural vehicles as well as cars and vans.