Home | Clean mobility | Nº 132 – Death of a Salesperson
My Renault ZOE and the RCI Bank of Portugal

Nº 132 – Death of a Salesperson
My Renault ZOE and the RCI Bank of Portugal

My Renault ZOE and the RCI Bank of Portugal

Saturday 20th August 2020.

Sometimes, somebody can turn into a friend of the climate in the blink of an eye, when their fairly new electric car stops working and they have to continue on foot. This story is as incredible as it is true. It’s a story about a Renault ZOE, the first European electric car, which I bought on 28 December 2015, brand new, from Almotor in Portimão, for my journalistic work at ECO123. The price was exactly €21,476.87, excluding the battery, but including VAT. There was the odd discount too. However, as for the 24kW battery, that was something I’d be better off renting, the salesman by the name of Eurico A. recommended to me at the time. And so it happened that I signed a 36-month rental contract with Renault Bank on 7 January 2016 – a Thursday, by the way. And the reason I did this was that the salesman promised me I could subsequently swap the battery at any time, should it suddenly give up the ghost. What a promise to make on the future of Renault!

At home, I was able to charge the car from a power point, with electricity from my 40 solar panels. In actual fact, I’m still waiting to receive the original copy of rental contract for that battery, dated 7 January 2016. It’s now 19 August 2022, and I thought for a long time about whether I should really write this story. However, this story contains an important lesson about how to understand the functioning of a system that is doomed to failure, a system that is ruining our planet. Our daily actions are not protecting nature on Mother Earth, our actions are not based on striving for a better understanding of how things are connected. No, what drives everything is money and profit, linear thinking and linear actions. We are engaged in the destruction of our livelihood while striving for even greater profits. We are not used to doing things in moderation. This also includes what is known as our mobility, the liberty to put ourselves into a car or plane, at any time of the day and for whatever reason, to travel from A to B. We are not able to simply do nothing, to take a step back and to question ourselves…

 

My very first car was a cream-coloured Renault 4. That was still when I was living in Germany, where I was born. Where I was born was not a matter of choice. However, this French car (which I did choose) allowed me to transport everything, and my big dog in particular. The R4, a jeep for the poor, still reminds me of my student days. Those were great days; they were exciting days. Today, however, if you buy a brand new electric Renault in Portugal, a ZOE for instance, you may, if things don’t go according to plan, find that your Renault is spending more time in the garage or being repaired by the mechanic than it is being driven on the road. Whether this might be considered a form of active climate protection is, of course, a matter of debate. That student from back in the day is now a journalist. He’s been walking on his own two feet for over a year now instead of using his Renault ZOE to drive to interviews. Sometimes he’ll take the bus run by the local transport network. His electric car was switched off by Renault Bank, using a “remote control” feature, without any advance warning. The vehicle may no longer be charged using green electricity. As an alternative, he can hire a vehicle, which costs a lot of money, as rental cars are expensive in the Algarve. And the friendly neighbour often helps out, giving me a lift when I’m returning home with my shopping.

I live and work in close connection with nature. This story stretches across a period of some six years. It starts on 28 December 2015, and it may serve as an illustration of carmaker Renault’s customer care in Portugal.

So, this journalist buys a brand-new ZOE as a company car from the Almotor Renault dealership (Entreposto) in Portimão, paying the invoice by bank transfer in the last days of 2015.* The buyer is his small publishing house in Monchique. Its plot of land supports two solar tracking systems with 40 solar panels, which serve, amongst other things, to charge the battery of this car. For free, by the way. So, what drives the people at Renault Bank to switch off the battery of a loyal Renault customer?

* Receipt No. 3493/2015

No electric car can move without a battery. This is obvious both to the customer and to RCI Bank and Services, based in Porto Salvo near Lisbon. The monthly rental fee is 79 euros, which entitles the customer to drive 12,500 km per year. The journalist has given the RCI Bank permission to charge a direct debit for the rental contract instalments over a time period of 36 months. As the Almotor salesman tells him, a bank transfer is not acceptable. The company needs to keep full control of the payments. Licence to act, Renault-style… Renault Bank business follows the tried and trusted principle of “Trust is good, control is better…” And those who have the control also reserve the right, a very particular right, under article 10, paragraph 2 of the rental contract: the right to switch off the battery. But this I’ll only find out later, as the bank refuses to send me my copy of the contract…

Between 2016 and 2019, three years, 36 months, go by, and the journalist is engaged in this ultimate long-term test drive. The Renault ZOE is also the first French electric car in a hotly disputed market. The fact that the ZOE is still in its infancy is compensated by a five-year warranty, and Renault guarantees a 240km range for its 24kW battery. “I was enticed by the offer.” It’s always easier to be wise after the event. “Maybe I shouldn’t have rented the battery? Maybe I shouldn’t have bought a Renault in the first place?” In the first three years, the car does in fact give up the ghost three times. You couldn’t start it anymore, which was a source of free fun for onlookers standing by the side of the road. People were staring, curious, asking whether this kind of breakdown is normal for a new electric car? A few hours’ wait later, the car is picked up, courtesy of Renault, in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, by a tow truck running on diesel, and towed over 300 km to Lisbon, using fossil fuels, of course. Lisbon is currently the only Renault centre for electric mobility in the entire country. Between 2016 and 2019, neither Portimão nor Faro had a Renault workshop able to repair a ZOE. This takes time, of course… The customer is provided with a courtesy car, for three weeks. Which unfortunately is a Clio running on petrol. Up to 4 March 2021, nothing much happens, apart from the “breakdowns”. However, drivers of Renault’s electric cars develop a certain tolerance for this too. On 5 March 2021, things get ugly. And not because a global pandemic by the name of Covid-19 comes crashing down on humanity…

I am trying to imagine the life and work of the staff working for Renault Bank and the carmaker. Having to deal with unhappy customers must be the bane of a salesperson’s life. And, at some point, unhappy Renault Bank customers just tend to give up, confronted with a carmaker and its bank, who decide to act like “stubborn mules”, refuse to admit a mistake, then realise they have indeed made a mistake, but still refuse to make amends for the damage wreaked by switching off the battery. In such a case, customers will no longer buy the product and won’t recommend it to others either. They will turn their backs on the carmakers and will speak ill of them. I am taking advantage here to tell my own Renault story. If you look online, you’ll find a few hundred more stories featuring Renault Bank. I for one am sure to never again rent a new battery off Renault Bank. However, let’s take a look at this story through a different lens…

This report on Renault talks about customer care and about support for sustainability. However, can there ever be sustainability in mobility, unless you walk everywhere? The Renault Group (2021= €962 million profit), the parent company and shareholder of the Japanese NISSAN carmaker amongst others, suffered huge losses in 2020 – eight billion euros – while Volkswagen made a profit of eight billion euros. How is that possible? Does fraud pay off? The French state, Renault’s largest shareholder, has to save the carmaker from going bust.

During the first three years, my ZOE has to be towed to Lisbon three times because it has broken down. No problem. A recently fired Renault board member also breaks down: Carlos Ghosn.

(https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Ghosn) He is smuggled out of Japan in a cello case aboard a private plane. In Japan, Ghosn was first remanded in custody in 2019, and then placed under house arrest, on suspicion of fraud. What this information doesn’t tell you is that quite recently he’d thrown a party for his 50th birthday, inviting some 1,000 friends to Versailles in the style of Louis XIV, with Renault footing the bill. By now, he is the subject of a global search warrant issued by Interpol in relation to a different instance of organised fraud. Ghosn is now in Lebanon, the country that he fled to, although his precise whereabouts are unknown. Lebanon does not extradite Lebanese citizens to France. The police also have to be patient sometimes …

I myself, the journalist, remain friendly and patient, too, understanding the French way of locomotion: after all I’ve been driving a Renault for 42 years, and I’m happy, whether with my first R4 in 1980 or my R16 from 1984 onwards, as well as my Kangoo since 1998. It might be the cheap Chinese parts of the ZOE’s battery control unit that are not working properly. Renault prefers to keep silent about the ZOE’s precise weak spots. The big surprise then comes on the night of 4 to 5 March 2021, a Friday, and what a surprise it is! A red light comes on in the dashboard of my electric car, warning me: BATTERY BLOCKED. And this marks the exact end point of my test drive. It could have been a really nice story I wanted to tell: a story on electric mobility with a happy ending. For, at the end of the day, the story should be zero emissions on the road…

Today it’s Friday 19 August 2022. Over a year has passed since the ZOE battery was switched off by Renault Bank – a year and five months, to be precise. This amounts to about 375 working days in the life of a journalist. Days during which the battery of the Renault ZOE purchased for ECO123 still could not be charged. Renault Bank has been blocking the battery since the morning of 5 March 2021. It doesn’t matter who I contact at Renault Almotor or Renault Bank: they just shrug their shoulders. Renault and the bank are two separate companies. And, with this Renault bank in Portugal, there’s no going forwards and there’s no going back. Policy here is as stubborn as the mule you that want to cross a bridge, and which refuses to do so. Customer care, Renault-style: since 5 March 2021, the electric car may no longer be charged using our own solar power point, nor anywhere else. The switch-off was ordered over the Internet (remote control) and out of the blue – without any advance warning – a clear breach of contract as I’ll find out later.

Customer care, Renault-style. There is a small chip hidden in the ZOE, as I find out during my research, a chip that allows Renault to track its customers 24 hours a day. Every 30 minutes, the onboard computer advises the company what its customer is doing with the electric car. The customer has long ceased to be king. They become beggars once they buy a new modern electric car off Renault. Renault can pursue them anywhere and everywhere, and turn them off for no reason at all. In which case, they’ve thrown their money for a new car out of the window…

 

Today it’s Friday 19 August 2022. I am repeating myself. I’ve still not received a reply to my many emails, the one I sent to Renault Bank on 1 February 2022, in particular. I’m waiting for a reply from Paula O. Who is Paula O.? (Her full name is, in fact, known to the editor.) In any case, she claims to be working for Renault Bank RCI in Porto Salvo. The mentality of “What I can do tomorrow I surely won’t do today” is a firm part of the bank’s policy. Paula O. is not the fastest worker; however, at least on 13 September 2021 she e-mails me a PDF version of my battery rental contract. This is the contract I’ve asked the Renault Bank for on 13 occasions over six years – since January 2016. She must have taken pity on me. To this day, Renault Bank have not sent me the original copy. I’ve been waiting for my copy of the contract for over six years. I can’t remember everything I signed up for on 7 January 2016. After all we’re now in the year of the Lord 2022. How time flies.

Another reason I’m asking Renault Bank to let me have the original copy of my contract is that there have been frequent irregularities with this bank’s direct debits.* Instead of debiting 79 euros at the beginning of the month, as agreed, the bank forgets to charge. What is a customer to think of this? Then, over the following months, the bank bundles two or even three instalments together and debits them all at the same time: 158 euros and 237 euros, in the middle of the month, or at the end of the month. Licence to act, Renault-style? What kind of bank is this? After three years (36 months) the bank account used for the debits is closed on 31 January 2019. However, the bank is still due three monthly instalments that they forgot to debit. So, I open a new account, letting Renault Bank know the new IBAN. This bank confirms receipt of the new IBAN by email…

 

So, there are irregularities with the direct debits. Nothing easier than that. I kindly ask the bank to send me a statement detailing the payments of these 79-euro rental fees. No reply is also a reply. This is not possible, but Paula O. of Renault Bank finally replies in an e-mail sent on 12 January 2022 (after more than six years have passed!): “On behalf of RCI Banque Sucursal Portugal (RCI), we wish to confirm that computer problems affected the usual and regular charge (by direct debit) of the monthly instalments, as stipulated in your contract. This is a situation that we regret and for which we would like to offer our most sincere apologies”.

Pt: Do lado da RCI Banque Sucursal Portugal (RCI), reconhecemos que devido a alguns constrangimentos informáticos, foi afetado o processo habitual e regular de cobrança (através de debito direto) dos alugueres mensais associados ao contrato de V. Exa., situação que lamentamos e para a qual apresentamos as nossas mais sinceras desculpas. (…)

Renault Bank forgets its direct debit and apologises, yet at the same time switches off the charging ability of our ZOE battery, as we, the customer, supposedly haven’t paid? How idiotic is this? Is a journalist allowed to label Renault Bank’s actions as “defrauding the customer”? I’d be interested to know whether a court of law would accept the word “fraud” in this context?

 

On 13 September 2021, the tone is very different. By now, the ZOE has been sitting in the garage for six months (six months!) and cannot be used. For the first time, Renault Bank finally gets in touch with its customer, the journalist, probably because I have asked them to do so on several occasions.  I cannot understand this switching off. So, it’s Paula O. on the telephone, asking me the slightly sarcastic question about when I was planning to pay the long outstanding instalments of the rental contract for the battery? Something is going awry in the “brain” of Renault Bank. Have they perhaps partaken of a few bottles of Beaujolais too many? I lodge a complaint in the Bank’s Complaints Book and also address the question to the regulatory authority, the Bank of Portugal, as to whether an institution like this should even be granted a banking licence? Yet, here too, a customer of Renault Bank is not really taken seriously. And I’m not the only person to have written in the Renault Bank’s Complaints Book. I am a foreigner in Portugal, and what’s more a journalist, possibly an unpopular one because I am insisting on my customer rights. This is simply not done in Portugal. It’s much better to know someone who knows someone… and, in this case, the person to know is Carlos de la Torre, smiling at his customers from his photograph on the Renault Bank website…

Yet, if we’re going to talk about rights, we have to talk about duties too. For over six years, Tempo Passa Boa Viagem Publicações e Marketing Lda., a publishing house in Monchique, has been defrauded by Renault Bank Portugal. The fraud consists in refusing to answer the publishing house’s CEO’s request for an original copy of the contract signed on 7 January 2016. Today, it’s Friday 19 August 2022, and Renault is simply refusing to release a copy of the contract. Nor do they say why they haven’t sent the copy. They simply say nothing, remaining stubbornly silent for six years. In Portugal, a bank acting in this way is able to continue going about its business with impunity.

So, I’ve bought a Renault ZOE that now won’t move, as the Renault Bank has forgotten to debit the rental charges for the battery. What kind of “pisstake” is this? I send them a complaint by registered letter, with a return receipt, which to cap it all, is not accepted by the regulatory authority, the Bank of Portugal. Are the ladies and gentlemen of the Bank of Portugal in cahoots with RCI Bank and Services? What happened to customer rights, I ask DECO, the consumer rights organisation? They say that their remit doesn’t cover companies, that they only act on behalf of private individuals…

 

Screenshot RCI Bank and Services PT

 

So, I send a registered letter with a return receipt to the CEO of RCI Bank and Services Iberia, Carlos de la Torre, and, in slightly broken French, to Renault’s CFO, Madame Clotilde Debos, of Boulogne-Billancourt in France. And, once more, I get to hear on the phone the dulcet tones of… Paula O. They are still awaiting an official reply, I’m told… after all, this process is taking place in a hot summer, during holiday time… In two weeks’ time, this story on the Renault ZOE – with a battery that has been blocked by Renault Bank for a year and a half – will be continued.

Hundreds of Renault owners in Europe have had their batteries switched off by RCI Bank and Services. I’d be interested in the circumstances. In Germany and Ireland, landmark rulings have already prohibited such interventions being performed on the property of a car owner. “A bank may not interfere with a vehicle not owned by the bank.” *(Higher Regional Court Düsseldorf, judgement on appeal against Renault Bank of 5 Oct 2021). This year, the European Court will take a look at the issue of Renault and the switching off of batteries. The German consumer protection agency in Leipzig has taken the RCI Bank to court and won in two courts of law, including on appeal… In Portugal though, DECO has so far refused to take the RCI Bank to court. When in Rome, do as the Romans do?

 

To become a friend of the climate is not difficult in Portugal. Simply “footing it enjoys a long tradition in the Monchique mountains. In the olden days, the hill farmers would take their donkeys on shortcuts from Esgravatadouro to Monchique, to carry their potatoes to market there. They would load up with what the fields and their farming activity bestowed upon them. This was hard work. Today the journalist walks 1.1 km on foot to the nearest bus stop in Caldas to take the 94 bus at 09:33 once a week on a Friday to food shop at the market. Loaded up with some ten kilos of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bread, goat’s cheese and eggs, dog and cat food, he takes the 12:30 bus for the seven-kilometre return journey. In a temperature of 44 degrees and under the burning hot sun, the forest having in the meantime burned down completely since 2018, my Portuguese neighbour stops when he passes me climbing up to Esgravatadouro and kindly offers me a ride home. Thanks Zé, thanks Filipe, thanks João and Filipa. For the past 375 days, I’ve had to refrain from research trips and interviews with my ZOE. This has been an enforced break. The buses only run every other hour. The way things look, Renault Bank is not interested in rectifying the damage wreaked on its customer by switching off the battery. No, it would rather sell me the old and, by now, useless lithium battery (24kW) for “only” 5.552,98 euros. In which case, they would switch the battery back on… Thanks, but no thanks. An electric car battery that’s been switched off for over a year is now probably dead anyway… Renault? Zero emissions?

Pt (Como alternativa, poderá proceder à aquisição da bateria em conjunto com a liquidação do valor em dívida pelo valor total de €5.552,98 (Iva incluído) onde já estão aplicados 553€ de desconto adicional.)

 

P.S.: If you, dear reader of ECO123, have had a similar or different experience in mobility, get in touch with us and let us know whether you’ve fared any better: editor@eco123.info … Any email will be treated with discretion and its authorship rendered anonymous.

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P.P.S.: One week ago, I received a mysterious phone call. The word had got around that ECO123 online was about to publish a substantial report. The caller was Renault in Faro. They would like to have the ZOE, immobilised since 5 March 2021, towed from Monchique to Faro. The idea is to analyse the battery in the Faro workshop. At the same time, the journalist would be entitled to a courtesy car (“carro de cortesia”)? Whether this story will have a happy ending after all, and what that might look like, will be revealed in two weeks. Watch this space!

 

Uwe Heitkamp (62)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123. Translations Dina Adão, John Elliot, Rudolfo Martins, Kathleen Becker
Photos:Uwe Heitkamp

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