TAIPEI - Electric vehicles have struggled to gain mass appeal in much of the world despite the fanfare surrounding Tesla Motors, the world’s best-selling brand of plug-in cars last year. Drivers worry about prices, comfort and what happens when a battery expires in the middle of a trip.
But in Taiwan, scooter vendor Gogoro doubles its sales every year largely because of a widespread battery exchange network supported by a central government that's keen to control emissions. Gogoro designs what it describes as ride-able scooters as well as engines for other brands, filling what the chief executive officer calls earlier market voids.
“People say we’re the two wheels of Tesla, and in some ways, we are,” CEO and co-founder Horace Luke said. “We do a little bit of everything.”
The company, which launched in 2011, first had to prove that it could all be done.
“Nobody could believe that an electric vehicle could be cool and fun to ride, so we built that,” said Horace Luke, founder of Gogoro. “Nobody believed that you could swap batteries, so we enabled that.”
Gogoro stands out among other electric scooter developers by working with Taiwan’s central government plus the city of Taipei to locate and pay for 1,300 battery swap stations. Those alleviate rider fears of running out of juice in mid-trip, a barrier to development of the world’s $17.43 billion electric vehicle industry.
Battery swap sites are placed every 500 meters in urban Taiwan, usually in obvious roadside locations. They turn up every two to five kilometers in other parts of the island. The central government pays half the cost of building the swap stations and offers publicly accessible land, Luke said. The government’s National Development Fund invested venture capital in Gogoro in 2014.
“You should have seen how hard it was for first 50 stations; it was almost impossible,” recalled Luke, 49, a Seattle native and former software designer who moved to Taiwan for the engineering talent and supply chain. He co-founded Gogoro in 2011.
“And our consumers are the ones voicing out. They go to the government and say ‘I want this here’,” he said.
Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and hacking them by 20 by 2030.
For the government now, Luke added, “it’s a win-win situation for them to adopt electric.”
Gogoro’s stations do 90,000 swaps per day. Those transactions give Gogoro the data it needs to know where it should resupply batteries.
Worldwide, just “a handful” of countries have “significant market share” of electric cars, the independent, intergovernmental International Energy Agency says. Norway led in 2017 with 39 percent of new sales in 2017, followed by Iceland at 11.7 percent and Sweden at 6.3 percent.
Taiwanese still want to know more about their next battery, said Paul Hsu, co-founder of Okgo.life, a fellow Taiwanese electric scooter brand with an app that lists types and prices of batteries at the swap sites on its roster.
“Every rider has a plan for every trip. The riders know where they’re going but not how much money it will take to get there,” Hsu said. For example, he said, “a short trip should have a short-distance vehicle and a short-distance price.”
‘Fun to ride’
Gogoro has raised its sales as well by designing scooter models attractive to men who like bigger motorcycles along as well as vehicles aimed at female riders. Sales doubled last year and they’re on track to double again this year, Luke said.
Total sales are about 160,000, or 16 percent of the total Taiwan scooter fleet. Tesla, by comparison, sold about 532,000 cars worldwide from 2012 to 2018.
Taiwanese adapted especially fast because of the earlier prevalence of gas-powered scooters. Riders were comfortable with the idea of scooters in general – just not the noise and pollution they kick up.
Tsai Cheng-yang, 36, an urban designer of the southern Taiwan city Tainan, has five electric scooters in his household. Compared to gas-powered scooters, he said, electric ones a quieter, give off less heat and lack the stench of fuel, he said. Operation costs are about the same, he said.
“If all vehicles were an electric powered, you’d feel it was quite peaceful, with no odors either, quite happy and a different experience,” Tsai said.
Gogoro plans to overcome competitors such as Yamaha and Aeon by selling motors to them, giving it a cross-brand presence, Luke said. “The idea is to create a platform allowing others to create their own vehicles,” he said.