September 30, 2013

Japan's Terra Motors - The Tesla of Electric Scooters?


Here in the United States, Elon Musk's Tesla Motors continues to make a lot of noise. The company's Tesla S, which sells in the neighborhood of $70,000, is a true electric sportster, and one that also happens to boast a dedicated 17-inch tablet-based interface on its dashboard. We’ve written about it and it is, without a doubt, both quite interesting and quite pricey as far as the marriage of automobile technology and mobile computing goes.

Now there is a totally new entry on the block looking to deliver the same exact marriage, albeit a marriage we might dub as being on the cheap. Well, not quite - it's still high end, but at a different point in the scale of overall ways to travel. A company has emerged In Japan - Terra Motors (hmm, note the similarity between Terra and Tesla) - that aims to deliver a marriage between electric scooters and the iPhone.

The company is a startup that was founded in April 2010, and we certainly seriously doubt that the name "Terra Motors" resembling Tesla Motors is a coincidence. Hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we can't really say there is much here in the form of harm - and as we further say, "No harm no foul." Why not create a very sophisticated electric scooter that makes direct use of an iPhone? Perhaps we should be surprised that Tesla itself hasn't thought to design one and bring it to the street. Or maybe it has and simply hasn't introduced it yet. Then there is Vespa to wonder about as well.

In any case, Terra looks to us to be first out the door with a serious road-worthy model. The following image (courtesy of Terra Motors, as are the others shown below) shows off the new scooter, which Terra has named the A4000i. It is rather spiffy looking as far as scooters go, and keep in mind that this is an electric scooter, so it will have a different configuration than most other scooters that sport gasoline engines.

We need to note here that Japan is hugely enamored of the iPhone. As such it makes a huge amount of sense to allow users to be able to integrate iPhones directly into the scooter, as Terra will allow users to do. The dashboard of the A4000i strikes us as a rather clean affair - there is certainly not much in the way of controls (a high end mountain bike might actually look more complex!) but as the image below shows, there is a very obvious place for an iPhone sitting there.

The iPhone connects to the A4000i through Bluetooth of course and needs to run Terra's dedicated mobile app for it. No surprises here. Once connected and operational the iPhone will then be ready to provide various details. In particular it will - since the scooter is electric, provide current battery charge. It will also serve to provide a variety of trip-related information.

As far as we know there is no reason the A4000i-attached iPhone couldn't run apps such as Google Maps or Apple's own Map app, but the company is developing its own navigation software as well. Terra notes that it plans to allow GPS data to be downloaded through cloud-based services that will be specific to wherever a user happens to be. Given the congestion that exists everywhere in Japan it would be hugely interesting to see how a Google-Waze service might help users to efficiently navigate their ways around.

Is There a Real Market?

Terra believes that it may very well be able to ship 10,000 scooters by the end of 2013. It further believes it may be able to ship up to 100,000 A4000is by the end of 2015. Today the A4000i has an MSLP of 450,000 yen or $4,574.38 as we write (let's call it $4,600). That may in fact not be considered expensive in Tokyo. But what about the rest of the Asian world, where scooters and bicycles play a huge role in general transportation - the very same global regions Terra will need to find sales channels?

As with Tesla, Terra is - at least initially - clearly targeting high end buyers, and Terra clearly believes that it will find enough of them to sell a high-priced scooter to. We suspect that the high level of cachet that will (as Terra hopes) be a part of any Terra scooter sale - in concert of course with the iPhone's own cachet - will in fact drive exactly enough sales across any region Terra will sell into to hit its target numbers.

More likely than not, this first iteration will likely be followed by lower cost models if sales prove there is a market for electric scooters. And no doubt the odds are that for these lower cost models Terra may look to work with cheap Android phones. Lower priced scooter models will need to rely on true cost-effectiveness for sales and this clearly means Android devices. Of course there will likely be a contingent of Galaxy S4 users as well but we think of Android in the Asian markets strictly in terms of low cost.

And, it is worth speculating if ultimately the iOS and Android interfaces may not also eventually sport a wearable component - perhaps a helmet that allows Siri or Google Now to talk to you as you are cruising along at up to 40 miles per hour (or more accurately, 65 kph outside of the U.S.). It certainly makes sense to us.

The battery design is also worth noting. As shown in the image below, the battery pack is housed in a compartment located beneath the A4000i's seat.

It supposedly has a range of about 40 miles - plenty for most applications, and fully charges in about two hours. Here is the other relevant thing about the battery - it is simple to swap out with a fresh battery. Perhaps owners will simply be able to pull in to a gas station and with a used battery for a freshly charged battery - not unlike the way those of us who barbeque a lot can simply exchange empty propane tanks for full ones.

How About an Electric Taxi?

Terra isn't only about selling electric scooters however. The company has also announced the mass production of what the company calls its E-Trike Taxi shown below. As with the scooter Terra is also targeting markets in developing nations with the E-Trike.

Terra CEO Toru Tokushige strongly believes that the electrification of taxis will dramatically accelerate in emerging countries specifically because of huge environmental pollution issues, oil shortages and fuel price hikes. Tokushige believes that a significance market for electric taxis will emerge very quickly.

The prototype shown here is equipped with a 48 V/60 A lithium-ion battery and a motor capable of outputting 7 KW of power. The vehicle can sit as many as six adults and can deliver a top speed of a top speed of 50 kmh (about 30 mph) with a range of 50km (30 miles). That range seems limited to us for a taxi, but you have to start somewhere.

There is no word yet on the taxi having an iPad interface. True, such cachet would not be useful for a commercial vehicle, but we can't believe a taxi driver wouldn't benefit from it.

We certainly look forward to hearing more from Terra.




Edited by Alisen Downey



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