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Former HTC execs unveil smart scooter plus a network of swappable batteries

Nicole Lee , @nicole
01.05.15
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One of the biggest barriers to owning an electric vehicle is that you have to charge it, often for hours, before taking it for a spin. But what if you could swap out its depleted battery for a fully charged one in seconds? And what if those batteries were in plentiful supply throughout the city? And what if, on top of that, the vehicle in question was a high-powered, cloud-connected electric scooter that told you, among other things, exactly when you should go and swap them out?

That's exactly what today's big announcement is from Gogoro, a new effort by a couple of ex-HTC executives -- former Chief Innovation Officer Horace Luke and former Chief Technologist Matthew Taylor -- both of whom were responsible for some of HTC's most groundbreaking products in the past few years. With Gogoro, however, Luke and Taylor's focus is not on phones, but on implementing smarter energy consumption in large cities. And its plans include transforming the urban transport landscape as we know it.

Gallery: Gogoro SmartScooter and Battery hands-on | 11 Photos

Gallery: Gogoro SmartScooter | 18 Photos

There are essentially two components to today's Gogoro launch: a sleek two-wheeled vehicle that the company built from the ground up, called the Gogoro SmartScooter, plus an entirely new battery-swapping infrastructure simply called the Gogoro Energy Network. Think of the latter as an interconnected citywide system of battery vending machines -- called GoStations -- where you can drop in your spent batteries and exchange them for freshly charged ones. Of course, the idea of hot-swappable EV batteries isn't entirely new, but Gogoro's effort is focusing on scooters. Additionally, these aren't any ordinary batteries either. The Gogoro Battery is designed to be highly modular, complete with a helpful handle at the top for easy portability. Created in partnership with Panasonic, the lithium-ion battery has supposedly 25 different sensors, NFC connectivity, plus 256-bit security encryption so that only those authorized can use them.

Gallery: Gogoro GoStation and Battery | 5 Photos

Here's how the whole thing works. First, you'll buy the SmartScooter, which is specially designed to use two of the Gogoro batteries -- simply lift up the seat to access them. With the purchase of the scooter, you'll also have to sign up for a subscription plan to the Gogoro Energy Network. You'll then get an accompanying app for both Android and iOS that not only tells you interesting diagnostics about your scooter, but also gives you the power of adaptive throttle control, customized regenerative braking and the ability to track ride details like top speed and range (we'll get into more detail on the SmartScooter later). You can also do things like change the color of the dashboard and alter the lock-and-unlock audio and lighting themes.

Importantly, the app also lets you know when you should go exchange your batteries if you're running low. It'll then let you know where your closest GoStation is with available batteries. From there you can just go to the station and exchange them, or you can make doubly sure you can get some by reserving them in advance with the app. When you get there, simply tag in and swap them out. Luke tells us that a GoStation will always have at least two slots free.

I had a chance to try out a prototype model of this, and while the batteries are quite heavy -- I could only carry one at a time -- it seemed easy enough to swap. Simply slot them in the appropriate compartments and you're good to go. The whole process, according to Gogoro, should ideally just take six seconds.

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"We started in 2011, right from the get-go," says Luke on Gogoro's origins. Both Luke and Taylor came up with the idea of creating a company around smarter energy consumption when the two were traveling around the world in their previous jobs. They saw how population density affected people's lives around the world, and thought they needed to come up with potential solutions for the resulting pollution.

"We looked at how people spent the most amount of money -- it's not in your cable bill or your electricity. It's in your gasoline and fuel." he says. "We all came from the smartphone space, so we know we would focus on the end consumer. Let's change that first. Let's focus on consumer products first."

"If you look at EV deployment around the world today, most of it is in the 1 percentile," Luke says, referring to Tesla's current niche slice of the market. "If we want EV to make a big impact, we need to bring it to mass market. The price point needs to be lower, broader." Further, Luke says that in so-called mega cities, it's becoming increasingly challenging to find a parking spot constant enough to let you charge a battery for several hours. "This was a great opportunity to address EVs from a mass-market perspective." As for why scooters? "There are 200 million scooters around the world. That's a lot more than cars." He also pointed out Asian markets like Taiwan and Vietnam, where scooter usage is very strong.

That's all well and good, but why bother creating the SmartScooter entirely from scratch? Why not just modify an existing one? "Matt and I looked at different ways to create breakthrough performances and efficiency, but there wasn't anything out here that satisfied us," says Luke. "It's great, because it gives us this opportunity. But it's also bad because it means we have to do everything ourselves!"

Indeed, Gogoro spared no expense in coming up with what the company calls the "world's first high-performance, zero-emissions, two-wheeled electric vehicle." The team designed the scooter themselves, and while they did rely on certain partners like Panasonic for the batteries and Maxxis for the tires, they committed to manufacturing most of the scooter themselves too, with high-quality components throughout.

"We actually use Philips LED diodes in our headlights. It's 100 percent LED," says Luke, adding that he believes this makes the SmartScooter the first scooter in the world to have 100 percent LED lights. "It's the same LED diode in the Audi R8 and the BMW 7 series. ... We save every tiny bit of energy into moving the vehicle itself."

The result is perhaps one of the most luxurious and tricked out scooters I've ever seen. Not only does it look pretty, with curved lines and blinged-out dashboard, but also the SmartScooter also boasts some impressive internals. We're talking an aluminum, fluid-cooled, permanent-magnet synchronous motor with a max power output of 6,400 watts at 4,000 rpm and a max horsepower of 8.58 hp at 4,000 rpm, the ability to accelerate from zero to 31MPH in 4.2 seconds and a max speed of 60MPH. Sure, you probably won't be able to take this on the freeway, but rounding tight street corners won't be a problem with its 45-degree max left lean angle and 48.5-degree max right lean angle. Gogoro also claims that the scooter's frame is made from an ultra lightweight and strong monocoque chassis made out of racing-grade aluminum and that its suspension is "inspired by jet fighter landing gear." Unfortunately, a lot of this remains unverified as we were unable to ride it around ourselves, but it does at least look impressive on paper.

It also has a whole host of sensors under the hood that include gravity and shock sensors, a digital compass, an ambient light sensor and multiple thermo sensors. And of course, it's got built-in Bluetooth to communicate with the app we mentioned earlier. As far as range is concerned, we're told that if you travel at a constant 25MPH, you'll get about 60 miles out of the SmartScooter. A little faster, and the range will drop; a little slower, and that range will increase. Here are the full details of the vehicle if you want to fully nerd out about the SmartScooter's insides.

With such an impressive list of components, you'd expect the SmartScooter to be expensive. But while Luke wouldn't tell us the price of the vehicle just yet, he said that it wouldn't be. The reason? It's because you're not buying the batteries, which typically make up the bulk of the cost of an electric vehicle; the subscription plan idea offsets that. But what if you want to buy the scooter outright? Well, you can't. The whole idea behind Gogoro is that you need to really adopt the whole system in order for it to work. That might be a tough pill to swallow, especially if you're not convinced that there'll be enough GoStations to, well, go around.

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But Luke assures us that if and when they roll out the scooters, the GoStations will be in place. He won't tell us which cities he's targeting just yet, but he says that deploying these GoStations should be pretty easy. "All we need are buildings with power. We can just load these machines up on a truck and plug them in."

Oh, and the SmartScooter is just the beginning. Luke says that it's only the first of several products the company is working on. When I asked if we'll ever see a car, he said that was a distinct possibility, though it's focused on just a scooter for now.

"Think about how your father's stereo system connected to the wall," Luke says. "Right now, the EV is connected to the wall. It's not really portable. You still have to return home to charge. What we're doing, is what AA batteries did to the Walkman. That's how big the game can be changed."

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