THE first cargo-carrying robot marketed directly to consumers is on sale this holiday season. But how many people are ready to ditch their second car to buy a two-wheeled rover that can follow them around like a dog?
Corporate giants like Amazon, FedEx and Ford have already been experimenting with sending delivery robots to doorsteps. Now Piaggio, the Italian (意大利的) company that makes the Vespa scooter, is offering a stylish alternative to those blandly utilitarian machines – albeit one that weighs 23 kilograms and costs US$3,250 (HK$25,438).
It is named the Gita (JEE’-tah) after the Italian word for a short, pleasurable excursion – the kind you might take to pick up some lacinato kale and gourmet cheese at a farmers’ market. Its creators have such trips in mind for the ‘hands-free carrier’ that can hold produce and other objects as it follows its owner down a pavement.
“We’re trying to get you out into the world and connected to that neighbourhood you decided to move to because it was so walkable,” said Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio’s tech-focused subsidiary, Piaggio Fast Forward.
Tech industry analysts are already declaring the Gita as doomed to fail unless it finds a more practical application, such as lugging tools around warehouses, hospitals or factory floors.
On a recent November morning, Lynn was hunched over in a Boston waterfront park, pushing a button that triggered a Gita to ‘see’ him with its cameras and sensors. Then came a musical whirring sound as the device – a squarish, bright red bucket with two oversized wheels – rose up and signalled it was ready for a neighbourhood stroll.
A young boy in a stroller pointed excitedly. Another pedestrian asked to try it, and playfully shouted “ah!” as it swerved around, keeping in pursuit as she switched directions.
The Gita does not require a phone or intrusive people-tracking technology such as facial recognition or GPS.
“It basically just locks onto you and tracks you,” said Piaggio Fast Forward’s other cofounder, Jeffrey Schnapp.
The Gita might still be impractical for many people. It favours paved environments that are dense enough to have stores in walking distance, but not so dense that the machines get lost in the crowd.
And anyone who is simply looking to pull home groceries without heavy lifting can find durable wagons online for less than US$100 (HK$782).
The Gita’s main rival for now will come from Starship Technologies’ own robots, which have already launched in the hundreds and are in service as ground-based food delivery automatons. While it has gotten a head start over other companies, these cargo robots have their own limitations, including the need for remote piloting in case of navigational emergencies.
(This article is published on the Student Standard on 29 November 2019)