After getting a tour of Gogoro’s flagship store in downtown Taipei, I reached a conclusion about the company’s electronic scooters: they’re geekcycles. What else would you call a bike that lets you use your phone to upload custom chime sounds for the turn signals? A bike whose app allots "merit badges" for triumphs like using a charging station at night or riding a certain distance between charges? When I saddled into the bike for a test drive, I thought I was atop a charming – if slightly nerdy – ride.
This post Gogoro is a geeky electric scooter with the soul of a motorcycle appeared first on Tech in Asia.
I thought wrong. My mistake dawned on me about two turns into our test drive, as the kindly shop assistant, Amy, opened the freaking throttle and fired us from a full stop to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph) in a matter of seconds. And she was just getting started.
Amy – who has several Gogoro merit badges for speed, by the way – rocketed us through the streets of Taipei. The scooter leaned into turns, accelerated without putting up a fight, and stopped on a dime. The gasoline-powered mopeds that clutter every Taiwanese intersection blurred by like slow-moving antiques.
The Gogoro may have the flares and flourishes of a techy ride, but it has the soul of a motorcycle.
Bringing ebikes to Taiwan
In Shanghai, nearly every city block features at least one coin-fed yellow metal box, spilling out electrical cords to a huddle of charging "ebikes." But in Taiwan, electric scooters have never caught on. Gas-powered bikes are so popular – Taiwan has one of the highest scooter ownership rates in the world – that the island never got around to building the infrastructure required for an electric scooter system.
That means any startup seeking to bring ebikes to Taiwan has to first confront the fact that there are no city-wide – let alone nation-wide – charging systems already in place. But Gogoro was ready for that challenge.
After raising some US$50 million in a series A round in 2011, the company got to work developing its bike and the requisite infrastructure.
"Piece by piece, we built the Smartscooter, the infrastructure for charging the product, and our cloud network from the bottom up," Ming-I Peng, Gogoro’s marketing VP, tells Tech in Asia. "At first it seemed like an impossible task because there were no existing components that were specially designed for electric scooters."
The Gogoro team had to design their scooters from scratch. Everything from the vehicle chassis to the motor itself was designed in-house, with high-performance and energy efficiency in mind.
And while designing the bike was no simple task, that is only the beginning of the battle. You could make the world’s greatest ebike (which, by the way, was Gogoro’s objective) but that gets you nowhere unless you’ve got a place to plug it in.
The power problem
To solve the problem of Taiwan’s lack of public charging infrastructure, Gogoro began opening up its own charging stations throughout Taipei. There are presently about 90 stations in the city, with many more in the pipeline.
Unlike a conventional charging station, where one would plug in an ebike with a standard power cord for an hour or more to get a charge, a visit to a Gogoro charging hub is a one-minute affair. Simply pop out the depleted batteries from your bike, drop them into a charging chute and then – with a motion almost exactly like a game of whack-a-mole – two new, fully charged batteries will pop out of the charging station.
A video posted by Erik Crouch (@erik_crouch) on Oct 20, 2015 at 8:10pm PDT
The charging hub is an essential part of the Gogoro model, and also its most controversial. On one hand, Gogoro hubs are faster and more convenient than any other charging solution on the market. Users see on the Gogoro app where the closest hubs are and then swing by. They can also reserve batteries in advance via the app, to make sure there are charged units available.
Yet Gogoro’s expansion is limited by the speed it can build these charging stations. While downtown Taipei is currently covered, other cities are still off the Gogoro grid. And seeing how users cannot charge their batteries in their homes, Gogoro bikes are unusable outside of the charging hubs’ coverage areas.
Also, running charging hubs throughout Taiwan isn’t cheap – after their initial scooter purchase, Gogoro riders need to subscribe to a monthly plan to cover battery swaps (the plan also includes roadside assistance).
While some may balk at the idea of paying a subscription fee for an ebike, it’s worth remembering: Gogoro is essentially the first company to take electric bikes seriously in Taiwan, and that comes with a lot of start-up costs.
Also, did I mention how cool the bike is?
While there may not be anything sexy about acquiring electronic motor components and building charging infrastructure, there is something sexy about the result: the Gogoro bike.
Gogoro’s scooter looks great. It’s sleek yet substantial, and features all the bells and whistles you could ever ask for. Bluetooth-enabled smartkeys? Check. A USB charger in the trunk? Check. 80 digital sensors throughout the bike to do anything from monitor your speed to diagnose motor issues? 80 checks.
The Gogoro bike is also highly customizable. The app allows endless tweaking of the bike’s digital interface, from the color of the speedometer to the sounds made when you press the turn signal. Going a step further, the bike’s faceplate can be easily removed (it’s magnetically attached) and replaced with any number of designs.
And the company didn’t invest in tech and tweaks at the expense of power. The Gogoro’s liquid-cooled motor packs a faster punch than a 125cc gas engine, and is capable of going from 0 – 50kph (31mph) in 4.2 seconds; and getting up to 80kph not too long after that. The motor maxes out at 95kmh (60mph), although you’d be have to be extremely lucky (and/or totally insane) to ever hit those speeds on the crowded, traffic-light-addled streets of Taipei.
Such high-tech power and design doesn’t come cheap. Gogoro bikes are pricier than their gas equivalents, clocking in at NTD 88,000 (US$2,716) for the "Gogoro Lite," NTD 98,000 (US$3,025) for the mid-range model, and NTD 108,000 (US$3,334) for the "Gogoro Plus."
The main difference between the models is the level of customization available. Also, small extras like the trunk’s USB charger cable are not available in the "Lite" model.
These sticker prices only tell a bit of the story, though. Taiwanese cities are eager to move their citizens towards cleaner energy, and are offering hefty subsidies to those who purchase electric scooters. The city of Taoyuan, for example, is offering subsidies as high as NTD 26,000 (US$802) on non-gasoline scooters, which can bring Gogoro’s prices down to a more manageable level. The subsidy amounts vary for each city.
Charging (heh) into the future
"Gogoro has now expanded from the Greater Taipei area to Taoyuan and Hsinchu," says Peng. "We are keen to make the concept of the smart city a reality in more cities in the future."
That’s both the biggest problem and the most exciting thing about Gogoro – that the company is single-handedly responsible for turning cities "smart" to support its bikes. Because its charging stations are proprietary and only support Gogoro batteries, the company is paving a path with its hubs that can’t easily be followed by other companies. Any startup seeking to compete with Gogoro in the Taiwanese ebike market will also need to construct its own infrastructure.
But so far, Gogoro’s experiment in Taipei has been a success. Finding a charging station is simple, and swapping batteries takes less time than filling a gas tank. City governments have embraced the potential for cleaner bikes, and their hefty subsidies may be enough to encourage middle-class Taiwanese customers to jump on the ebike bandwagon.
Expanding is certainly an arduous process, but it’s one that Gogoro seems capable of pulling off.
Following its 2011 series A round of US$50 million, Gogoro is currently eyeing a larger series B, and is looking to expand its investor portfolio.
If you are not a resident of Taiwan, then you probably won’t be riding a Gogoro anytime too soon. But you shouldn’t lose all hope. "Gogoro was born in Taiwan, and we are pleased to see our great products drawing global attention to the industrial capabilities of Taiwan," says Peng.
"We have received many inquiries and opportunities to collaborate from various cities around the world. Whether it is in Taiwan or overseas, we will definitely evaluate our future development with care."