How One Pollution-Weary Asian Island Adopted Electric Vehicles

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.”

Battery swaps

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.

Pro-European Parties Retain Hold On European Parliament Despite Losses

European political leaders met Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the results of the EU elections and possible candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. Overall, the centrist parties have lost some ground while far right and populist, anti-immigration parties, have made gains in major EU nations, such as Britain, Italy and France. But green and liberal parties have seen the biggest growth. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

MacKenzie Bezos Pledges to Give Away Half Her Fortune

MacKenzie Bezos, who just months ago divorced the world’s richest man, has pledged to give away half her fortune to charity. 

The former wife of Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos is one of the 19 new signatories to the Giving Pledge who have promised to donate more than 50% of their wealth, the organization said. 

“I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” MacKenzie Bezos said in a letter released Tuesday. “My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” 

Bezos’ personal fortune is worth nearly $37 billion, making her the 22nd-richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

The Giving Pledge was created by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010. It asks the world’s wealthiest people to promise to give away half their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. 

Bezos’ former husband, who is worth an estimated $114 billion, has not yet signed the pledge but tweeted his support for his ex-wife’s decision.

“MacKenzie is going to be amazing and thoughtful and effective at philanthropy, and I’m proud of her,” he said on Twitter.

​Other billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge include Elon Musk, oil baron T. Boone Pickens, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and his wife, Tegan.

Sneezing a Lot? Handheld Allergen Detector Can Help

Whether you live in a city of somewhere more rural, there are always things in the air, invisible to the naked eye that could make you sneeze or cause major illness. Detecting these microscopic materials such as pollen, mold and pollutants could be time consuming and costly. A lab at the University of California, Los Angeles is trying to solve that problem by developing a handheld allergen detector for consumers. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

Mexico Freezes Oil Exec, Steel Accounts in Corruption Probe

Mexican authorities have frozen the bank accounts of Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company, and those of steelmaker Altos Hornos de Mexico, in what looks to be a major new push to punish alleged corruption.

Altos Hornos de Mexico said later Tuesday in a statement that its president Alonso Ancira Elizondo was arrested in Spain for reasons it had not ascertained.

The company said it was awaiting a response from Mexico’s finance ministry to its request to release its accounts. The actions were “illegal and arbitrary,” the company said in its statement.

The Financial Intelligence Unit said Monday that “there were various transactions with funds that presumably did not come from legal activities” in the frozen accounts and the funds “are presumed to have originated in acts of corruption.”

Santiago Nieto, head of the unit, called the account freezes a hallmark of the “new” Finance Ministry. “The policy of the Mexico government is zero tolerance for corruption and impunity,” he wrote on Twitter. 

 

Lozoya’s lawyers did not return calls for comment.

Nieto was a top corruption investigator in the administration of former President Enrique Pena Nieto. But he was abruptly fired in 2017 in the middle of an investigation he led into Lozoya’s dealings while head of state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, also under Pena Nieto.

Nieto has reopened the case in his new position in the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 and vowed to stamp out endemic public corruption.

Lozoya and Altos Hornos have been mentioned, but not charged, in corruption scandals involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The so-called Car Wash investigation into illicit payments by Odebrecht to government officials has led to multiple arrests and prosecutions in Latin American countries over the past five years, but none in Mexico. 

 

Mexico scored 28 out of 100 points in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, where a lower score indicates higher levels of corruption. That puts Mexico on par with Russia and behind countries such as Honduras and Bolivia on perceptions of clean business.

Ricardo Alvarado, a researcher with non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, told The Associated Press that Mexico needs an “emblematic” case to send a strong signal to society that the government is serious about stemming corruption.

Former Odebrecht officials have given evidence to Brazilian prosecutors implicating Lozoya in the company’s bribery scandal. Lozoya has denied receiving bribes, though last week, the government banned Lozoya from holding public positions for 10 years.

Altos Hornos, meanwhile, paid $3.7 million in 2014 to a company called Grangemouth, which it said was hired to advise on selection and pricing of equipment and to facilitate purchases of metallurgical coal to produce steel. Grangemouth has been identified as a possible shell company for Odebrecht.

In a statement, Altos Hornos de Mexico SA called the freezing of its accounts “without precedent, arbitrary and in violation of every right.” The company said it employs more than 20,000 people and has thousands of suppliers. In a separate statement, AHMSA assured creditors that it would make its debt payments.

The account freezes may stem from Pemex’s decision to purchase fertilizer business Fertinal from AHMSA for $635 million in 2015, when Lozoya headed Pemex.

Lopez Obrador has called the fertilizer plant “junk” and said that Pemex overpaid. Now the government must decide whether to put more money into the plant or bring in a private partner.

“I would very much like to re-establish fertilizer production, and for us to be self-sufficient,” Lopez Obrador said Tuesday during his morning press conference.

Facebook Drops 51 Fake Accounts Traced to Iran   

Facebook has dropped 51 accounts, 36 pages, and seven groups after the cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed they were fake accounts originating in Iran.

Three Instagram accounts were also deactivated.

The FireEye report Tuesday says the phony accounts pretended they came from the United States and impersonated legitimate Middle Eastern news sources to push a pro-Iranian agenda.

Posts written in both English and Arabic included discussions about American and British politics, Islam, Arab minorities, and the influence of Saudi Arabia. The posts represented both conservative and liberal points of view.

One post said the best way to honor the memory of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was for the U.S. to stop sending aid to the Saudi coalition fighting Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.

The fake posters even succeeded in getting letters to the editors published in a number of U.S. newspapers, includingThe Los Angeles Times and The New York Daily News.

The author of the FireEye report, Lee Foster, was careful not to directly blame the Iranian government for the illegitimate accounts, saying the investigation is continuing.

Facebook says it is also investigating and is sharing information with law enforcement.

“We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Facebook said. 

It added it canceled the suspect accounts for their behavior, and not because of content.

Thrill-Seekers Can Zip Down Eiffel Tower

Daredevil visitors to Paris will be able to leap off the second-floor balcony of the Eiffel Tower, albeit for a limited time. 

A zipline will allow some of the visitors to travel 800 meters in a minute at speeds of 90 kilometers an hour from the iconic tower to the 18th-century military complex of Ecole Militaire.

The zipline was set up by the French mineral water brand Perrier to celebrate the French Open and to coincide with the 130th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.

The free ride will be available to thrill-seekers picked by an online lottery on social media and a select few who manage to get some spots set aside for an onsite drawing. 

One visitor to the tower posted a video of one of the zipline riders on Twitter saying, “Don’t try this at home.”

The zipline will be in place until June 11. 

 

EU Leaders Starting to Pick Bloc’s Top Chiefs

European leaders are in Brussels to choose their preferred candidates for top European Union positions after last week’s parliamentary elections, but already are divided on who should be the next president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc.

The term of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the commission ends in October. But Germany and France, two of the biggest economic forces on the continent, are at odds on who should replace him, a choice that must be ratified by the 751-member parliament when it assumes power in July.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel favors fellow countryman Manfred Weber, who has led the conservative European People’s Party group, the biggest in the EU assembly, since 2014. The EPP, even as it lost seats in the parliamentary elections, still constitutes the largest bloc of lawmakers and her support for Weber is in line with past practice in picking a European Commission president from the leading party in the parliament.

But the big centrist blocs in parliament will lose their majority in the new legislature, with nationalists and Greens gaining ground, leading to a more fragmented assembly and possibly more difficulty in picking a consensus nominee for president of the commission, which proposes EU laws and enforces them.

French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters he favors a nominee with “experience either in their country or in Europe that allows them to have credibility and savoir faire,” an apparent attack on the 46-year-old Weber, who has never served in government or a major institution like the commission.

Macron suggested two alternative nominees, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition since 2014, and Frenchman Michael Barnier, who has led the EU’s so-far unsuccessful negotiations with Britain over London’s Brexit effort to divorce itself from the EU.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez suggested a fellow socialist, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, saying he “has the qualities and the experience.”

The European leaders are also picking a new leader of the EU Council, a body that defines the European Union’s overall political direction and is now headed by Poland’s Donald Tusk; the European Central Bank, now led by Italian Mario Draghi and a new foreign policy chief, currently Italian Federica Mogherini.

 

New Ukrainian President Reinstates Saakashvili’s Citizenship

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has reinstated the Ukrainian citizenship of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who served as governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region in 2015-16.

In a decree signed and posted on the presidential website on May 28, Zelenskiy annulled a portion of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko’s July 2017 decree that stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship.

Zelenskiy’s decree comes eight days after his inauguration and six days after Saakashvili’s lawyer, Ruslan Chornolutskiy, filed a request seeking restoration of Saakashvili’s citizenship.

Saakashvili was granted Ukrainian citizenship and appointed to the Odesa governor’s post in 2015 by Poroshenko, an acquaintance from their student days.

Authorities in Tbilisi stripped Saakashvili of his Georgian citizenship in December 2015 on grounds that Georgia does not allow dual citizenship.

Then, when relations between Poroshenko and Saakashvili soured over corruption allegations and slow reform efforts, Poroshenko in November 2016 sacked Saakashvili from the Odesa governor’s post.

In July 2017, after Saakashvili created an opposition party called the Movement of New Forces, Poroshenko issued a decree that stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.

In February last year, Saakashvili was detained in Kyiv, taken to the airport, and flown to Poland.

Days later, Ukraine’s border service banned Saakashvili from entering Ukraine until February 13, 2021.

Saakashvili swept to power in Georgia after helping lead the peaceful Rose Revolution protests there in 2003, when he was mayor of Tbilisi.

His party was dislodged from power by an opposition force in 2012 parliamentary elections and his term as president expired in 2013.

Saakashvili currently resides in the Netherlands, his wife’s native country.