The world’s cities are rapidly getting larger. By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. All of those people will need effective, reliable transportation–and unless we want to live on a planet where every city is as smog-choked as China’s, that transportation will have to largely be emissions-free.
A mysterious startup, called Gogoro, wants to provide that form of transportation. Armed with $150 million in funding, the company–which has been teasing “a more intelligent and adaptive system for today’s most dynamic cities” for months–has finally gotten specific about its idea: a slick electric scooter that’s compatible with a network of battery swap stations deployed every few blocks across a city.
That’s just the beginning. Once the lithium ion batteries have been depleted to a certain point, Gogoro envisions that they will get a second life as power sources for data centers, homes, and offices–anywhere a low-cost technology with better performance than a traditional lead acid battery would be useful.
Horace Luke, co-founder and CEO of the company, calls this system the Gogoro Energy Network. If the rollout in Gogoro’s still-unnamed partner cities go as planned, here’s how it will work: When the rider’s 62-mile-range scooter battery is depleted, they will zip on over to the nearest charging station, which would be no more than 0.8 miles away. A smartphone app would provide information on the vehicle’s battery level and the nearest swap stations, as well as allow for battery reservations.
The used battery is quickly removed and inserted into the modular swap station, which is about the size of an ATM machine. The station can identify the rider based on their battery and can provide information on the scooter, like how many miles it has been ridden and whether a brake light or blinker has gone out. Once the old battery has been inserted, a freshly charged battery is automatically provided. According to Luke, the whole swapping process should take no more than six seconds. In a demo provided to reporters, that proved to be the case.
Gogoro uses the information it has about individual riders to determine who gets what battery. Some batteries have run through more charge cycles than others; a customer who rides more intensely will be given a newer battery, while a more casual rider may be given one that has been used more often. After 500 cycles, or about five years of use, batteries are taken out of commission and given over to their second life as power sources.
“We’ll be producing a steady stream of retired battery packs starting five years after launch,” says Luke. A charged battery at 50% to 75% capacity can power a house for an hour, a laptop for 25 hours, a home furnace for an evening, or server rack with 40 servers for 20 minutes.
Customers will pay an upfront cost for the scooter (comparable to the average 125cc scooter) and then will lease batteries for a recurring fee, similar to a cell phone plan.
The scooter is manufactured by Gogoro. “We are more a car manufacturer than a system integrator. Down to the bolt, suspension, motor, batteries, brake system–we do it all,” says Luke. Gogoro’s scooter design features an aluminum frame, a liquid-cooled electric motor, and the ability to accelerate from 0 to 31 mph in 4.2 seconds. The scooter also has a 50/50 weight distribution balance for the rider, giving it the ability to make a hockey stop. The scooter’s front panel is magnetically attached; it can be removed with a suction cup, giving easy access to the bike’s innards.
There are also sensors–lots and lots of them. Some of the 30 sensors on the scooter include a digital compass, a shock sensor, and a thermal sensor. The bike can analyze riding patterns, optimize energy use, and dim its lights when necessary to maximize energy. “We came from the smartphone industry, so everything on a smartphone is on the vehicle, says Luke.
Every 10 minutes, the scooter uploads information on its condition online. Riders can also download sound effects and lighting patterns for the bike’s display.
It’s hard to look at Gogoro’s business plan and not think of Better Place, the incredibly well-funded startup that sold battery swap services for electric cars. The company failed spectacularly, as Fast Company detailed here. Better Place went bankrupt for a number of reasons, but one of the big problems was that it failed to get automakers onboard. That’s not a problem with Gogoro, since it makes both the scooter and the battery swap stations.
A more successful auto startup, Tesla, is also starting to offer battery swap services at its Supercharger EV charging stations. The rollout is just a pilot program for now, and Tesla hasn’t even attempted to put down as many Supercharger stations as Gogoro hopes to install in each city that it operates in.
Gogoro does face a challenge that both Better Place and Tesla (to a lesser extent) had to deal with: the classic chicken and the egg problem. People won’t buy scooters if the swap stations aren’t available, but it doesn’t make sense to do a mass rollout of swap stations without potential customers–except, in Gogoro’s case, it might. Each swap station costs less than $10,000. That’s pricey, but it’s a pittance compared the $500,000 cost of a car battery swap station. Gogoro can theoretically afford to do a big rollout and then wait for the customers to come.
But first the company needs to find willing test cities. Luke says that Gogoro is in talks with a number of urban areas, and that it has enough capital to launch in one or two big cities. “It needs to have the right population density, and the population has to have awareness of two wheel [vehicles] as the future,” says Luke.
That suggests that a city in Southeast Asia, where scooters are already ubiquitous, might be in Gogoro’s future. A smaller city like San Francisco could also work, but Gogoro would have to do more work convincing locals that scooters are the most effective means of transportation. In whichever launch cities it chooses, Gogoro will also have to work out the potentially complicated logistics of figuring out where the swap stations go (on private land, or in gas stations, or in parking lots, and so on).
Gogoro plans to announce its first cities later this year.