Monday, September 30, 2013

Terra Motors' electric scooter is a $4,500 iPhone accessory

No electric vehicle is more iconic than Tesla Motors' Model S, and none of its features are more notorious than the colossal 17-inch touchscreen that replaces many of the traditional buttons and knobs found on your regular car dashboard. The Verge's Chris Ziegler wasn't too impressed with the interface when he took the Model S for a spin, finding it overbearing and unreliable. But what if you could bring your own touchscreen to an electric vehicle, providing more useful information while keeping the standard controls intact?
That's the idea being pushed by Terra Motors, a Japanese startup that says it's created the first "sophisticated" electric scooter to enter mass production. The A4000i looks more or less like any other moped, but its spartan dashboard features a conspicuously iPhone-sized slot for you to insert your phone. Once connected over Bluetooth and running Terra's app, the phone will display information such as the current battery charge and information about the trip. Although it's not ready yet, Terra is also developing its own navigation software to be used with the scooter, and plans to include the option to upload GPS data to the cloud to assist cities in congestion management.
Shinpei Kato, director of Terra's business development unit, tells me that there's little precedent for a "premium" scooter in the nascent electric vehicle industry, and his company is looking to beat the likes of the similarly named Tesla to market. Terra aims to ship 10,000 units by the end of 2013, and 100,000 in the next two to three years. Unlike Tesla, however, Terra is aiming the A4000i primarily at emerging markets such as Southeast Asia. The quiet scooter is also being positioned as a good choice for newspaper delivery in Japanese urban environments.
At 450,000 yen (about $4,500), one of the world's most expensive iPhone accessories wouldn't necessarily seem the most obvious fit for the streets of Hanoi. But Kato says there's a growing number of people — "the top 2-3 percent" — in such countries that would be able to afford it, and the iPhone connection lends the A4000i cachet as a "high-end personal transport device." The idea is that both smartphones and scooters are status symbols, and the combination of both will be much more desirable than previous mopeds. And, while the current model's dashboard will only fit the iPhone, Terra plans to ship an adjustable console next year to accommodate Android devices.
The iPhone app is limited right now, but perhaps that's for the best; even with a high-contrast black-on-white UI and a matte screen protector on the iPhone, it's very difficult to read the display in direct sunlight. For that reason, Terra has also included a simple monochrome LCD display to show readouts for more critical information such as speed, and the scooter's main controls aren't any different from those of a gas-powered equivalent. The iPhone integration, as such, is more of a curio at this point than a crucial part of the driving experience.