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.

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.

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.

AI Phones, PCs Edging Into Global Consumer Technology

Artificial intelligence-driven phones that turn photos into 3D images and PCs with interactive speakers will come a step closer to reality this week during Asia’s biggest consumer technology show.

 

Organizers of the Computex Taipei show with 1,685 exhibitors — including a who’s who of global high tech companies — call artificial intelligence one of their top 2019 themes.

 

Microchip developers Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm are expected to talk up their latest gear during the four-day show that opens Tuesday. Memory chip maker Micron Technology says it will exhibit a “broad portfolio of memory and storage” for artificial intelligence.

 

“My personal expectations toward AI this year are quite high,” said Helen Chiang, general manager of market research firm IDC in Taipei. “Whether from the perspective of the information systems or the technology, I’ve got some anticipation for these device-plus things.”

 

Artificial intelligence — AI for short — lets computers make human-like decisions based on data collected from hardware. Classic examples available to common users now include speech recognition, e-mail spam filters and personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa.

 

Apps, speakers and 3D images

 

Almost all the world’s chief hardware and software developers say they are researching what they else can do with AI. That push promises more functions that will be built into PC operating systems and mobile phone apps.

Forrester Research, a leading industry advisory firm, predicts that artificial intelligence will reach a market value of $1.2 trillion per year by 2020 as investment triples from 2018.

 

Consumers should expect in the short term to find AI-assisted matchmaking apps, more chatbots used by financial services companies to talk with customers, and new tools for processing financial data, said Jamie Lin, founding partner of AppWorks Ventures, a startup accelerator in Taipei.

 

One app designer is working with a Taiwanese smartphone company on AI technology that would turn camera images into 3D scenes, Lin said.

 

“Pretty soon you’re going to see phone device ODMs (developers) coming to the market where phones that are able to capture 3D images are loaded with software to help you turn that 3D image into content that can be used for different formats, for example games or 3D playbacks of sceneries,” he said.

 

Among AI-enabled hardware, “smart” speakers are especially likely to reach mass markets next year, Lin added. Consumers will be able to ask them questions such as the day’s weather forecast or the latest NBA scores, he expects.

 

Speakers already make up the highest growth category among “smart home devices” because of their “easy” voice interface, Forrester said in a May 21 report.

 

The rapid expansion of AI consumer products may not last. The market research firm Gartner forecasts that growth in the business value of artificial intelligence will slow through 2025 from a peak of 70 percent to just 7 percent as companies end up seeking “niche solutions that address one need very well.”

But the show host Taiwan is forecasting a boom for now. Premier Su Tseng-chang said in mid-May the government would help train 10,000 people every year to work in AI research and development. Taiwan, a global tech hardware hub since the 1980s, already has enough engineering knowhow to draw big-name Silicon Valley firms such as Google and Microsoft to open local R&D centers.

Computex 2019

 

Among the Computex exhibitors, Microsoft will show AI-enabled software and applications, said Mark Linton, general manager for Microsoft’s partner-devices unit. AI features included in its Office 365 software already direct the PowerPoint program to make downloaded images “gel” into its presentations, he said.

 

“There’s no doubt that AI is a transformative area of the technology industry, and over time it will prove to be a major investment area for Microsoft and I think the industry as a whole,” Linton said. “And really the benefits that we’re looking to get there is to make systems and applications smarter, more intuitive.”

 

A lot of AI-linked gear is expected to surface this year at the show’s InnoVEX segment. This zone for startups grew last year to 388 exhibitors, and 456 have registered for the event this week.

 

Gartner anticipates that startup firms working with AI will overtake Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM this year in “driving the artificial intelligence economy” for businesses.

 

The Taipei show, now in its 38th year, expects to draw 5,508 exhibition booths, up nearly 10 percent over 2018. The number of exhibitors should rise 5%, the organizer said in a pre-show statement.

 

Virtual Reality Offers Glimpse of Rome’s Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus Experience, opened in Rome this week and offers visitors the chance to relive the ancient splendors of chariot racing in the Imperial period of Rome through augmented and virtual reality. The innovative project implements interactive display technologies never before used in such a large outdoor area.

“Now you find yourself in front of the Arch of Titus, which was possibly built in the place of a more ancient arch and dedicated in the year 81 After Christ by the Roman Senate and people to Emperor Flavius”.

This is just an example of what modern-day visitors will be listening to in their headsets, while at the same time through special visors see a virtual rendering of the majestic 20-meter Arch of Titus in Rome’s Circus Maximus.

Thanks to a ground-breaking project using interactive display technology never before used in such an extended outdoor area, visitors are able to re-live the life in one of Rome’s undisputed landmarks.

Visitors immerse themselves in history for with overlapping images from the past and those of the reality of today. They are able to visualize architectural and landscape reconstructions of what life was like during all of the historical stages of the Circus Maximus.

They can see the ancient Murcia Valley enriched with buildings and walk around in the Circus among the shops of the time. They can visualize the Circus during Imperial times, the Middle Ages and in a more modern age.

The full itinerary involves eight stops including: the valley and the origins of the Circus, the Circus from Julius Caesar to Trajan, the Circus during the Imperial age, the cavea or tiered seating arena, the Arch of Titus, the tabernae or shops, the Circus during the Middle Ages and modern age, and lastly “A Day at the Circus” for an experience of the exciting chariot race of the quadrigas with the screams of incitement of the public and the overturning of wagons.

Visitors are able to enjoy similar experiences in Rome at the Baths of Caracalla, the Ara Pacis and the Domus Aurea.

Drones Monitor Whale Health In Australia

A water-proof drone is being used by Australian scientists to collect the highly-treasured nasal mucus of migrating whales. The snot is rich with fresh DNA, viruses and bacteria, and is collected by a drone that hovers over the blowholes of humpback whales as they embark on their epic annual journey along Australia’s east coast.

Whales, like all mammals need air, and come to the surface to breathe through a blowhole.

Vanessa Pirotta, a marine biologist at Macquarie University, says that nasal mucus indicates the health of the whale.

“It is the juicy biological mixture that you see as a whale takes a breath as they surface from the water,” she said. “You often see that plume and it sounds like this like [sounds of sharp breaths] as a whale breathes because, after all, they are mammals like you and I and they have two nostrils, and it is the humpback whale that I am talking about. So as they take a breath it is a lot of lung bacteria coming out from their lungs, which we can collect to provide a snapshot of whale health.”

Australian researchers have attached a petri dish that is used in scientific tests to a drone which flies through the whale’s nasal mist.

“As a whale comes to take a breath — you can actually see it coming to the surface on really good weather days that is — the drone then lowers, the petri dish is then opened and the drone is flown through the densest part of the whale snot, collecting the sample in the petri dish. Now once this happens the lid is shut and the drone is flown back to the research vessel and we collect the sample to later process it in the laboratory,” said Pirotta.

The research could help to solve one of the mysteries of another magnificent creature of the deep — the Southern right whale. Its numbers have recovered on Australia’s west coast since hunting was outlawed but its population on the eastern seaboard remains stubbornly low.

In the past studies into whale health had to rely on examining whales that were either killed or those whales that had been stranded on a beach.

Drones allow scientists to collect samples from free-swimming whales to gather information in a safe and non-invasive way.

 

 

 

At Pentagon’s Silicon Valley Outpost, Urgency Amid Tensions With China

In a building a few miles from Google and Facebook’s plush campuses is the Pentagon’s sparse outpost in Silicon Valley.

Here, military personnel and civilians look for commercial technology that can help the armed services solve problems they face in the field.

That could be working with a local commercial rocket company to deploy satellites faster. Or finding an up-and-coming firm that has created a novel communication system that works in some of the harshest conditions.

Defense Innovation Unit

Founded four years ago, the Defense Innovation Unit has a sense of urgency now more than ever, says its director, Michael Brown, formerly chief executive of Symantec, the cyber security firm, and of Quantum, a computer storage firm.

Because of the new so-called Tech Cold War, tensions are surging between the U.S. and China over emergent technologies, such as 5G mobile phone networks, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving.

“The Defense Innovation Unit’s mission has never been more critical, given the tech race that we’re in with China, than it is today,” Brown said.

Chinese investors and companies also are here, for many of the same reasons — to find the breakthroughs that will help their nascent and growing tech industry. But they’re presence is under increasing scrutiny, fueled by a concern that Chinese investors and companies are part of a system of transferring technology out of the U.S. and into the hands of an adversary, the Chinese government.

Raising alarms

Brown is the co-author of a report that shed light on the growing presence of Chinese firms and investors in Silicon Valley and raised alarms over whether the U.S. was in danger of losing key technology to the Chinese. 

The U.S. government has expanded its restrictions on Chinese companies buying firms deemed to hold key technology. And Chinese investors are finding it harder to be part of funding rounds of U.S. startups.

“Investors have become much more sensitive to the issue,” said Rebecca Fannin, author of “Tech Titans of China.” “They’re more cautious about investing.”

​Mixed reception

Some in the tech industry are skeptical of working for either the Pentagon or Chinese companies and the Chinese government. Employees at Google this year pushed back on projects involving both.

Brown’s job is two-fold. With his deep ties in the tech industry, he helps find technology that might help the military. He is also an ambassador of sorts for the Pentagon in Silicon Valley, building a bridge to tech firms large and small.

“For areas like artificial intelligence or cyber, we need those companies more than they need us,” he said. “But when we’re talking about smaller companies that are trying to get off the ground, get to their first $100 million in revenue, they’re interested in large customers. So, we have found no reluctance at all, in fact, enthusiastic response that they participate in our solicitations.”

American tech companies have long argued for the same access to China’s market that Chinese companies have here, for a “level playing field.” That hasn’t happened yet, but some are skeptical that disengaging from the Chinese economy is the right approach.

Vigilance, engagement

At a recent event by the Asia Society Northern California, investors, former tech executives and intellectual property experts discussed the conflict with China. Engagement with China has worked, argued Andy Rothman, an investment strategist at Matthews Asia, an investment firm, even if there is still a lot China hasn’t done that it said it would do.“The level of personal freedom that the Chinese people have today is dramatically better than it was 30 or 40 years ago and part of that is due to engagement with the rest of the world,” Rothman said.

For Brown, the issue isn’t how far China has come. It’s about the U.S. maintaining its technology edge and getting tech firms to think twice about working with the Chinese, even though the country represents a huge, largely untapped market.

“We do not share the same values as the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “We need to be aware of that as we’re looking to make the next dollar. There’s other things at stake.”

However the trade war is settled, the ongoing tensions over whether there will be one or two tech super powers likely will remain.