French car maker Renault suspended three senior managers in what a source close to the company said on Wednesday was a move linked to the suspected leaking of secrets on its new electric vehicle models and possible industrial espionage.
A Renault spokesman said on Tuesday that it had suspended three senior managers over unspecified ethical issues. Sources who asked not to be named told AFP that the suspensions were linked to the alleged leaking of company secrets.
"It centres on the electric vehicle," a source close to the car maker told AFP on Wednesday.
Renault aims to mass produce electric cars for the general market, a key strategic move for years to come as auto makers face up to demand for more environmentally friendly modes of transport.
"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 added, without giving further details. The spokeswoman added on 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. They were required to leave their offices on Monday, the sources said.
Renault says it 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 five-seat hatchback Leaf -- short for Leading Environmentally-friendly Affordable Family car -- is set to be launched in select European markets in early 2011.
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 elsewhere in France's huge, automotive industry, including tyre maker Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo.