Two-wheeled Taiwanese EV company sets sights on foreign markets
TAIPEI — Gogoro, the electric motorcycle maker that launched its first product about three years ago at CES in Las Vegas, says that it expects to enter markets in Southeast Asia within the next five years. The Taiwan-based company says it has captured about 8% of the island’s sales of new scooters and it now has 80,000 Gogoros on the road. That’s gotten the attention of larger local competitors such as Kymco who plan to start offering their own line of two-wheel EVs.
As the competition heats up, Gogoro aims to enter much larger markets such as Southeast Asia and India, which have huge numbers of motorcycle riders. The company estimates that the Southeast Asia market alone will be 20 times the size of the Taiwan market.
“In three to five years, we’ll see Gogoro in more cities than we do today,” said Gogoro founder and CEO, Horace Luke, in an interview with EE Times. “We’ll be starting to make a dent in more emerging markets.”
Worldwide, more people use two-wheeled vehicles than the four-wheeled variety, according to Luke. To reduce carbon emissions globally, the heavy lifting needs to be done in Asia, he said. In places like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, the roads are too narrow for buses and other types of conventional mass transit. Motorcycles will be the best form of transportation in such locations, according to Luke.
By 2030, most of the world’s people will be living in large cities, and the world will be facing more issues of mass extinction, when most amphibians will disappear from the face of the earth, according to the company.
Energy management has become a critical issue for nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, which are already undergoing widespread power brownouts, said Luke. Conventional motorcycles consume about $60 billion in fuel annually, according to Gogoro.
Gogoro will start to tap into the Indian market within the next few years, according to Luke. Indian consumers bought about 20 million motorcycles in 2017, and the nation will be switching from gas to electric by the year 2030, he said.
Within a few years, a Gogoro will reach a price that will enable the company to start entering markets in Southeast Asia, according to the company.
Gogoro sees itself not so much as a motorcycle maker as it does an energy management company. With its AI system that takes power off the grid during non-peak hours, the company’s battery stations in Taiwan can operate for as long as 48 hours without power, noted Luke.
Today, Gogoro has about 600 battery-swapping stations on the west coast of Taiwan, where most of the island’s population is concentrated. Gogoro users can go any distance on the island without compromise, according to Luke. They can also go into a battery station and swap batteries in six seconds, virtually eliminating any waiting time or charge anxiety while on the road.
With a subsidy from the Taiwan government, the price of a basic Gogoro, including the trade-in of a two-stroke engine scooter, is NT$39,000 ($1,276.00). Without the trade-in, the price is about NT$60,000, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of a new combustion- powered scooter. The cost of the electricity used to run a Gogoro is also about the same as the cost of conventional fuel, according to Luke.
As the scale and manufacturing volumes for Gogoro increase, the price of the company’s motorcycles will drop, he added. “We’ll be making more vehicle models to satisfy everybody, not only at this price point,” said Luke.
The first Gogoros were made with the best materials and components to prove the concept, he said. After that, the company aimed to make new versions of the product more affordable and convenient in terms of swapping batteries.
Gogoro has been improving its AI system for charging batteries at its swapping stations to decide when and where to charge batteries.
“We take a profile of a particular station and the users around that station,” said Luke. The AI system looks at user profiles and the weather near a particular station to decide how to charge batteries. The faster you charge a battery, the more impact there is on the environment.
Gogoro aims to prolong the life of batteries at the same time as it takes power off the electrical grid during non-peak hours.
Gogoro has created a valuable prototype in Taiwan for energy management, said Luke. “We’re using Taiwan as a pilot to perfect this system.”
Gore and Gogoro
When you go global, it helps to have friends in high places. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is one of the key investors in Gogoro through Generation Investment Management, a sustainable investment fund founded in 2004 by Gore and former Goldman Sachs Asset Management head David Blood. Generation has also invested in green tech businesses such as Elon Musk’s Solar City.
Gore made a special visit to Taiwan just a few weeks ago to give a motivational talk exclusively for the Gogoro staff, said Luke.
Gore holds regular roundtable summits with businesspeople and others who want to do more to halt global warming. In those meetings, Gore often uses Gogoro as an example of a company that’s making a difference, according to Luke.
Gore may also help Gogoro work with political leaders in emerging markets, said Luke. “I’m sure that he’s available if I ever want to open doors.”
Other key investors include Temasek Holdings, the national wealth fund owned by the Government of Singapore, and the Taiwan Government’s National Development Fund.
Competition Heating Up
With their lively colors and styling, Gogoro scooters stand out from the conventional motorcycles that ply the roads in Taiwan. That’s in part because the company uses the design talent of Beatrice Santiccioli, one of the chief color designers for Apple under Steve Jobs. She first met Horace Luke at smartphone maker HTC when he was the chief innovation officer at the company.
Despite its distinctive style, Gogoro needs more than good looks to compete with the more than 30 motorcycle makers on the island.
Earlier this year, local competitor Kymco announced at the 2018 Tokyo Motorcycle Show that it would sell electric scooters and open a battery-charging service. The company makes more than 570,000 vehicles a year.
Kymco plans to launch nine EVs during the next five years and roll out its own charging stations in 20 countries.
While he didn’t mention Kymco specifically, Luke said that larger companies are reviewing Gogoro very deeply. He’s open to licensing Gogoro’s energy management technology. “In the long term, we will provide a platform for others to innovate.”
The Taiwan government has mandated that by 2035, all scooters will be electric.
“It’s not a matter of whether the world will move to electric scooters,” said Luke. “It’s a matter of when.”
In the meantime, change in the scooter business doesn’t happen as quickly as it does in the electronics world, where Luke was a key innovator of smartphones when he worked for Microsoft and HTC.
The cycles are long in the motorcycle business, he said. “There are all sorts of considerations such as safety and reliability. It doesn’t turn as fast as the consumer electronics world.”
Internationally, Gogoro has been expanding. In Europe, Gogoro has added Madrid, Paris, and Berlin to the cities where it operates through a partnership with Bosch.
In Japan, Gogoro has a partnership with Sumitomo and is operating on the offshore island of Ishigaki, a popular tourist destination.
“We see ourselves doing two models,” said Luke. “One is the fully deployed model like what we are doing in Taiwan. The other is a sharing service in more developed markets where gas prices are high and there is low penetration of scooters.”
Luke said that when he founded Gogoro, he expected to design AI tools and software, but he now oversees a company with teams making its own motors and components. “I had to do everything on my own because there was nobody else doing it.” Luke designed an entire production line for EV scooters not just to build a company but to create a new industry. “We are only building the vehicles as a demonstration that this product can work,” he said. Over the long term, Luke is aiming for “Gogoro inside” for the EV industry.
Luke is no stranger to creating industry standards. When he was with Microsoft and HTC, he was one of the key people designing the first smartphones. Luke said that he never imagined that the creation of the smartphone would lead to multibillion-dollar companies such as Uber.
“If you ask me what Gogoro is about, we are trying to build the next industry for energy. We have built a smart vehicle, but what we really want to do is smart energy. By making every battery and charging station a smart IoT, we are creating new applications that are unimaginable.”
Luke declines to say whether the company is using standard or custom-designed silicon in its systems. He says he can go into nerdy detail, but he doesn’t dare to because of potential copycats.
“There are a lot of things we do that use discrete components,” said Luke. “But of course, there’s a lot of magic we need to do to make the system more efficient.”
Luke said that Gogoro has been improving its energy efficiency. “The first Gogoro was made of aluminum. The later version was made with a steel frame and larger wheels to carry two riders. The larger wheels are also better at dealing with potholes. “We needed to design a product for emerging markets, where the roads are rougher.”
The first vehicle could go 100 kilometers before swapping batteries, but the new, heavier version now goes 110 kilometers before swapping. Luke declined to go into detail on the main ways the company squeezed more efficiency into the latest models. He did say that there have been no changes to the batteries, however.
Moreover, in order to maintain reverse-compatibility across the product line, the form factor for Gogoro batteries will not change even as energy density improves, said Luke.
On his wish list, Luke wants to make the Gogoro scooter more like a smart device. The vehicle should learn and adapt to the behavior of its user, he said.
Gogoro was the first EV company in the world to use a smartphone to unlock the vehicle, according to Luke.
With most vehicles, you buy it, and there are no improvements, said Luke, adding that Gogoro will have continuous upgrades for each vehicle throughout the product life. As an example, the latest version of the Gogoro uses facial recognition for unlocking the vehicle.
“You just look at your phone with facial ID functionality, and you unlock your scooter,” said Luke. Not one Gogoro has been stolen, although theft of ordinary scooters is quite simple, he said. Security, functionality, and reliability are all key differentiators behind the Gogoro brand, according to Luke.
Luke admitted that the company faces a number of obstacles on the way to entering new markets in Asia, not the least of which is government regulation.
He is no stranger to lobbying government regulators, however.
When he was with Microsoft, Luke designed the first touchscreen phone, but he came up against the U.S. FCC, which required that all such phones be equipped with physical buttons to initiate and end a phone call.
After considerable lobbying with the FCC, Microsoft was able to get approval for the world’s first phone design with on-screen buttons, said Luke. He believes that he will be able to overcome the same types of regulations for scooters, even in the vehicle industry, with its longer lead times.
—Alan Patterson covers the electronics industry for EE Times. He is based in Taiwan.