Taiwanese startup Gogoro is making news today after four years operating in stealth, revealing an electric scooter designed for commuters along with a ridiculously ambitious plan to power it. You don’t plug the scooter in, like you would essentially any other electric vehicle in the world — instead, Gogoro has its sights set on user-swappable batteries and a vast network of battery swapping stations that could cover some of the most densely populated cities in the world.
It’s a little crazy. Actually, it’s a lot crazy.
I first got a glimpse of the system at an event several weeks ago in San Francisco, where Gogoro CEO Horace Luke worked the room with the charm, energy, and nerves of a man who was revealing his life’s passion for the first time. Luke is a designer by trade with long stints at Nike, Microsoft, and HTC under his belt, and his creative roots show in everything Gogoro has done. The scooter just looks fresh, as if Luke hasn’t designed one before (which is true).
Maybe it’s the former smartphone designer in him that’s showing through. Luke is joined by a number of former colleagues at HTC, including co-founder Matt Taylor. Cher Wang, HTC’s billionaire founder, counts herself among Gogoro’s investors. The company has raised a total of $150 million, which is now on the line as it tries to convince riders, cities, and anyone else who will listen that it can pull this all off.
In reality, I’m deeply skeptical. But if you let Luke rub off on you long enough, you can’t help but believe they’ve got it figured out.
See all the latest CES 2015 news here ›
At a high level, Gogoro is announcing the Smartscooter. It’s probably the coolest two-wheeled runabout you can buy: it’s electric, looks unlike anything else on the market, and incorporates a host of legitimately unique features. All-LED headlights and taillights with programmable action sequences lend a Knight Rider aesthetic. An always-on Bluetooth connection links into a smartphone companion app, where you can change a variety of vehicle settings. The key, a circular white fob, is completely wireless like in a modern car. You can even download new sounds for startup, shutdown, turn signals, and so on; it’s a bit of an homage to the founders’ roots at HTC, in an industry where ringtones are big business.
It’s probably the coolest two-wheeled runabout you can buy
"Electric scooter" inherently sounds safe and slow, but Gogoro is working hard to dispel that image upfront. It’ll reliably do smoky burnouts — several were demonstrated for me by the company’s test rider — and it hits 50 km/h (31 mph) in 4.2 seconds. (It’s surreal seeing a scooter, the icon of practical personal transport, lay a perfect circle of rubber on a public street as the rider slowly pivots the machine on its front wheel.) Top speed is 60 mph, which compares favorably to a Vespa 946’s 57 mph. The company’s promotional video features a black leather-clad badass leaning hard through sweeping turns, superbike-style, dragging his knees on the pavement along the way. Luke says they’re appealing to young riders, and it certainly comes through.
But ultimately, it’s just a scooter. The secret sauce is in the infrastructure that lies beneath.
It’s not just that you don’t plug the Smartscooter in — you can’t. When power runs low, you visit charging kiosks placed strategically around a city (Gogoro calls them GoStations) to swap your batteries, a process that only takes a few seconds. The hope is that the company can sell the Smartscooter for the same cost as a premium gasoline model by removing the very expensive cells, instead offering use of the GoStations through a subscription plan. The subscription takes the place of the money you’d otherwise spend on gas; you’re basically paying monthly for the energy. If the "sharing economy" is hot right now — ZipCar, Citibike, so on — Gogoro wants to establish itself as the de facto battery sharing ecosystem. (The company hasn't announced pricing for either the scooter or the subscription plans yet.)
"By 2030, there’s going to be 41 megacities, the majority in the developing world," Luke says, pointing to a map centered on Southeast Asia. It’s a region that has succumbed to extreme air pollution in recent years, a victim of industrialization, lax environmental regulation, and a rising middle class with money to spend. It’s also a region that depends on two-wheeled transportation in a way that the Western world never has. Scooters, which flow by the thousands through the clogged streets of metropolises like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, are ripe targets for slashing smog; many models actually belch more pollutants into the air than a modern sedan.
The de facto battery sharing ecosystem
Electric vehicles are frequently maligned for merely moving the pollution problem elsewhere rather than solving it outright — you’ve got to produce the electricity somehow, after all — but Luke and Taylor are well-prepared for the question, insisting that you’re better off burning coal outside of a city to power clean vehicles inside of it. Long term, they note, clean energy probably becomes viable in today’s emerging markets.
The batteries have been designed in collaboration with Panasonic, a prolific battery supplier that has enjoyed the EV spotlight in recent years thanks to its partnership with Tesla and an investment in Elon Musk’s vaunted Gigafactory. These are no Tesla batteries, though: each dark gray brick weighs about the same as a bowling ball, equipped with an ergonomic bright green handle on one end. They’re designed to be lugged around by anyone and everyone, but I can imagine really small riders struggling with the heft. Luke and Panasonic EVP Yoshi Yamada seem to be as excited about the batteries as anything else, lauding their NFC authentication, 256-bit encryption ("banks use 128-bit encryption," Luke says), and smart circuitry. Basically, they’ll refuse to charge or discharge unless placed in an authorized device, and they’re completely inert otherwise.
Swap batteries and get back on the road in under half a minute
That circuitry is undoubtedly driven in part by a desire to lock down Gogoro’s ecosystem and render the batteries useless to anyone not using a Gogoro-sanctioned device — yes, battery DRM — but it’s also about making the battery swapping experience seamless. The Smartscooter’s bulbous seat lifts to reveal a lighted cargo area and two battery docks. Riders in need of more power would stop at GoStation, grab both batteries from underneath the seat, and slide them into the kiosk’s spring-loaded slots. The machine identifies the rider based on the batteries’ unique IDs, greets them, scans for any warnings or problems that have been recorded (say, a brake light is out or the scooter was dropped since the last swap), offers service options, and ejects a fresh set of batteries, all in the course of about six seconds. I’d guess that an experienced Smartscooter rider could probably stop and be back on the road in under half a minute.
The concept exploits certain realities about scooters that aren’t necessarily true for other kinds of vehicles. Most importantly, they’re strictly urban machines: you won’t generally ride a scooter cross-country, and you definitely won’t be able to with a Smartscooter. It’s designed to stay inside the footprint of the GoStations that support it. It’ll go 60 miles on a single charge — not very good compared to a gas model, but the problem is tempered to some degree by how effortless the battery swaps are. A dense network of swapping stations solves electric’s single biggest challenge, which is charge time.
"What you’ve seen today could not have been done three or four years ago."
If Luke is the face of Gogoro, CTO Matt Taylor is the arbiter of reality, the man behind the scenes translating Luke’s fever dreams into tangible results. A lifelong engineer at Motorola and Microsoft before his time at HTC, Taylor spends my briefing burning through spec sheet after spec sheet, datum after datum. It’s as if he has mathematically deduced that Gogoro’s time has come. "What you’ve seen today could not have been done three or four years ago," he beams, noting that everything about the Smartscooter was developed in-house because off-the-shelf components simply weren’t good enough. The liquid-cooled motor is made by Gogoro. So is the unique aluminum frame, which is acoustically enhanced to give the scooter a Jetsons-esque sound as it whizzes by.
Taylor also beams when talking about the cloud that connects the GoStations to one another and to the Smartscooters. Everything learns from everything else. Stations with high traffic might be set to charge batteries faster and more frequently, while lower-use stations might wait until late in the night to charge, relieving pressure on strained power grids. As the batteries age, they become less efficient; stations could be set to dispense older batteries to less aggressive drivers. With the smartphone app, drivers can reserve batteries at nearby stations for up to 10 minutes. Luke says there’ll inevitably be times where the station you want doesn’t have charged batteries available, but with careful planning and load balancing, he hopes it won’t happen more than once or twice a year.
But therein lies the problem: the way Gogoro works — and the only way it works — is by flooding cities with GoStations. "One station per mile is what we’re looking for," Luke says, noting that the company has the capital to roll out to one or two urban areas initially. The kiosks, which cost "under $10,000" each, would be owned by Gogoro, not a third party. They can go pretty much anywhere — they cart in and out, are vandalism-resistant, and screw into place — but someone still needs to negotiate with property owners to get them deployed and powered. It’s an enormous, expensive task that runs a high risk of bureaucratic inefficiency, and it needs to be repeated ad nauseam for every city where Gogoro wants its scooters. So far, it isn’t naming which cities will launch first, but Southeast Asia is clearly priority one. Luke also seems to take great interest in San Francisco, where our briefing was held. He says there’ll be news on deployments in 2015.
Gogoro envisions an entire "second life" for its batteries
Company officials are focusing on that initial launch (and for good reason), but there’s more on the horizon. Without offering any details, they say there are other kinds of vehicles in development that would make use of Gogoro’s batteries and stations. I specifically ask about cars, since it doesn’t seem to me that you could effectively power a full-on automobile with a few bowling ball-sized batteries. "4-wheel is not out of the question at all," Luke assures me. He seems more reticent about licensing Gogoro as a platform that other vehicle makers could use, but leaves it open as a possibility.
And when the batteries aren’t good enough to use on the road anymore — about 70 percent of their new capacity — Gogoro doesn’t want to recycle them. Instead, it envisions an entire "second life" for thousands of cells, powering data centers or homes. Luke thinks there could even be a third life after that, powering lights and small appliances in extremely rural areas of the world. For now, though, he’s just trying to get the scooter launched.
At the end of my briefing, I looked back through my notes to fully digest the absurdity of what Gogoro is trying to do: launch a vehicle from a company that has never done so, power it with a worldwide network of proprietary battery vending machines, launch a few more vehicle models, sell old batteries to Google and Facebook, wash, rinse, repeat. Reduce smog, balance power grids, save the world. I can certainly see why it was an appealing alternative to the incremental grind of designing the next smartphone at HTC — but I can also make an argument that they’re out of their minds.
I don’t think Luke would disagree, but he’d also argue that you’ve got to be a little crazy to take on something this big. If he’s feeling any late-stage trepidation over the magnitude of the undertaking, he certainly isn’t showing it. "Everything was about getting it perfect, so we did everything from the ground up."