Electric scooters blazing a trail for Taiwan's economic future
KENSAKU IHARA, Nikkei staff writer
TAIPEI -- The drone of scooter engines reaches near-deafening levels on the streets of the Taiwanese capital during the morning rush hour. The island's roughly 23 million people own some 13.6 million scooters, the highest number per person in the world.
In a city infamous for its gridlock, scooters are an indispensable means of transportation for Taiwanese of all ages, from busy working mothers to pensioners. "It's very convenient and, more than anything, you don't get stuck in traffic jams," said Helen-Cheng, a 28-year-old woman who commutes by scooter.
Thanks to a simple way of solving a technological challenge, electric models are increasingly becoming the two-wheeler of choice for many Taiwanese, and their success offers hope for President Tsai Ing-wen's plans to diversify industry away from its traditional strength in the information technology sector.
The problem with previous-generation electric scooters was the lengthy charge time, often needing to be left overnight to reach full power. This deterred many from switching over from gasoline models.
That was until local venture Gogoro resolved the issue with its "six-second" charging system. Instead of drivers having to endure the seemingly eternal wait, the key lies in unmanned swap stations, where drivers can exchange low-running battery packs for a fully charged replacement.
Performance of new-generation models has also seen significant improvements. On a fully charged battery, a Gogoro scooter can travel a total of around 100km at 40kph. It can go from 0kph to 50kph in 4.2 seconds and reach speeds of up to 95kph.
There are over 220 Gogoro swap stations in the larger cities. In Taipei and New Taipei City, battery stations outnumber gas stations.
A smartphone app lets users know how much power is left and guides them to the nearest station. It also flags any problems with the vehicle using data gathered by attached sensors, and can be used to start the engine and unlock the seat compartment.
According to Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications, a mere 5,000 of the 660,000 scooters registered in 2014 were electric types. In 2015, the figure more than doubled to 11,000 thanks to Gogoro's launch in June. This year, 9,225 units were registered in the first seven months -- over 60% of them were Gogoro models -- meaning a new annual record will almost certainly be hit by a sizeable margin. The rapid success has earned Gogoro the nickname "the Tesla of scooters."
Some see the company as a model case for overcoming structural problems in Taiwan's industrial structure. Taiwan made its name as the workhorse of the global IT industry by providing manufacturing services to the world's electronics companies. But it has seen its lead in the field gradually eaten into by a rapidly advancing China.
"Taiwan's IT industry is facing a massive challenge," Tsai said after taking office in May. The new leader has made no secret of the fact that reforming the industrial structure is her most pressing task. Gogoro may offer a valuable example for how to promote creativity and value added products and services.
Meanwhile for the company, hopes are high for overseas expansion. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in the U.S., Gogoro unveiled plans to share its battery stations with rivals in a bid to promote them. Gogoro's scooters have been chosen by Germany's Bosch, the world's leading auto component maker, for its electric scooter sharing project, which began in Berlin in August.