The Gogoro Smartscooter is refined, stylish and edgy, like the love child of an iPhone and a Vespa with the detail-oriented hallmarks of a European luxury car. A vehicle for the digital age, the Smartscooter is easily customized through your smartphone — from the color of your dash panel to how much power the engine delivers.
It’s these little details that get Horace Luke the most excited. Co-founder and CEO of Gogoro, Luke played a pivotal role in Gogoro’s July launch of the futuristic Smartscooter.
“On motorcycles, fuses are so randomly placed. I can’t tolerate that. So for us, all the fuses are all together,” he says.
Designed and manufactured entirely in-house by Gogoro in Taipei, Taiwan, every detail aims to deliver a particular, exacting experience. The effect invites comparisons to Elon Musk’s Tesla, which has made electric cars as desirable as any luxury car. But the Smartscooter packs hidden power that could surpass even Tesla and may shift thinking on how electric vehicles should fit into high-density urban environments. Gogoro isn’t just selling scooters; it’s selling a swappable battery service.
This is a very new concept, and not even industry observers are sure it will work. Ryan Citron, research analyst from Navigant Research, thinks Gogoro is starting in the right part of the world to make this work — “all the highest sales and highest growth rates [for electric scooters] are expected in that region” — but he notes car battery swap startup Better Place failed miserably.
“This is quite different however. There are much lower costs for electric scooter batteries versus a car battery,” says Citron. “Is it going to be like an iPhone or an iPod kind of reaction there? A lot of companies think that with their products. Which ones can actually do that? I’m not sure.”
Go, go, Gogoro
Over three years, Gogoro developed its e-scooter concept in stealth mode led by Luke and co-founder and CTO Matt Taylor. The duo revealed the final design at the global CES tech conference in January 2015, where the audience responded with marked enthusiasm.
“The global interest has so exceeded our expectations,” says Taylor, hinting that the excitement seen at CES has given them encouragement to look toward faster global expansion in coming years.
High-profile launches are something Luke and Taylor understand after working together at both Microsoft and HTC. Luke is the creative whirlwind, having helped craft Xbox, Windows XP and early Windows Mobile before becoming chief innovation officer at HTC during its most successful phase as the early leader in Android development. Taylor is the engineering mastermind, with a background in early Pocket PC “smartphones” at Microsoft and then alongside Luke as chief technologist at HTC.
“Horace and I have worked together now for well over a decade,” says Taylor. “Horace is really, really good at taking in all the different trade-offs, and I would say that really sets him apart from most executives you’ll see out there. He likes to understand the details, the subtleties, and actually work with the engineers on the trade-offs.”
Smartphones to scooters is quite a leap, but Luke speaks with clarity about the journey into personal transportation.
“We’re fundamentally a technology company,” says Luke. “Everyone who comes in here gets excited about the scooter, but that’s about one-third of what we do at the company. Electric vehicles today are stuck to the wall. I imagine what we are about to do is what the AA battery did for the stereo.”
I visited Luke at the company’s flagship store in Taipei. With one of the highest density scooter-riding populations in the world, Taiwan’s capital is a fitting home base. On an island nation of 23 million people, more than 14 million scooters cram onto Taiwan’s roads. Scooters are so ubiquitous that traffic lights are designed to give riders special turning zones to heighten safety as riders weave in and out of automotive traffic.
Smart and powerful
Like any self-respecting electric vehicle, this scooter packs a real punch off the line at the traffic lights. The frame itself has been tuned to give the scooter a pleasing hum as it zooms along, like something out of science fiction powered by bubbles rather than batteries. The Gogoro just looks and feels like that much fun.
The road to a compelling ride hasn’t been easy to navigate. Taiwan’s mountainous geography creates a challenge for building a scooter that can deliver great performance in varied terrain. Taylor names this performance as a critical difference between what Gogoro has created compared with its competition in the nascent e-scooter market.
“Any number of lower-powered scooter makers, they’re taking an off-the-shelf motor, for example, and just putting that on the back wheel, and then that’s the power train,” says Taylor. “That’s got issues with hill climbs. But what we’ve built is a scooter that’s capable of really clipping up a hill at 60 miles per hour, sometimes with a friend on the back.”
Beyond raw power and performance, the Smartscooter is “smart” because it features dozens of sensors that monitor performance and maintenance for feedback to Gogoro HQ. From fluid levels to headlamp replacement alerts, service advice and suggested solutions appear each time you visit a Gogoro battery swap station.
You can even monitor your scooter’s health via an app, adjust performance settings or just reserve a battery at your nearest GoStation so you know more power will be ready when you get there.
The real product: A battery network
Gogoro’s big trick is its battery network. The Smartscooter houses two batteries under the seat — each with easy-to-grab handles, of course. When you need to recharge, you head to a nearby battery swap location for fresh batteries. Most customers pay a monthly subscription fee, although Gogoro gave early buyers two years of battery swaps for free.
The first reaction for many on hearing about Gogoro’s battery swap system is, “Why can’t I also charge these myself at home?”
But the very idea of plug-in, at-home recharging is a Western luxury. To use a plug-in requires access to a garage, for starters. In a high-density city like Taipei, riders rarely park close to their homes, and parked scooters jam every back street. When you’re lucky to park even a few blocks from your home, swappable batteries make a lot more sense than anything that demands access to a power outlet.
The GoStation network in Taipei will have more than 150 stations by the end of 2015. Each station houses a bank of battery slots where riders can swap used batteries for fully charged replacements in just six seconds.
“We’re aiming for stations every 2 square kilometers,” says Luke. “We will have more GoStations than gas stations.”
Racks of dense-yet-portable batteries spread all around a city have potential far beyond juicing scooters. Luke hints at the possibility that someday these stations could power everything from Jet Skis to lawn mowers. The company is even considering letting other companies adopt the Gogoro battery as a standard for use in rival scooters.
“We have an extra benefit in that we could rack our batteries, so you could put them in, for example, a 3×3 grid and stick those on your wall much like Tesla’s doing with its [home energy storage system] Powerwall,” says Taylor. “But there’s also a mobility component to our batteries. Take two batteries and run a drill on a construction site. Or take two batteries and make a better UPS for critical appliances in your business.”
Luke even believes his network of distributed batteries has the potential to help balance load on the power network itself. Luke says such ideas have already been discussed with the Taiwanese government — Gogoro feeding power back into the grid during high-demand periods or assisting when a blackout would otherwise occur, for instance.
The inevitable EV
At more than four times the typical price of low-spec electric scooters, Gogoro enters the Taiwanese market priced well above the norm and not poised to dominate overnight. But while getting Taiwan right is the first order of business for Gogoro, it won’t delay expansion for long.
Beyond rolling out in other high-density megacities of the world (where the city population is beyond 10 million), Luke sees clever small-scale rollouts in Gogoro’s future.
“The idea is to take this and make it a global product, make it a turnkey product,” says Luke. “We can actually put four or five containers full of scooters and one or two containers of stations in any college town you want to populate.”
Taylor says the tide is turning fast toward electric vehicles in general. As electric range keeps extending, the advantages over gasoline become stronger. For both the urban air quality benefits and the raw math, the benefits will make EVs inevitable.
“I went to HTC to put the Internet into people’s pockets,” says Luke. “The smartphone was just the best way of doing that. What turns me on is seeing people celebrate and be excited by our product and say, ‘That changed my life.’ That’s what we want to do.”
This story appears in the winter 2015 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.