Piaggio Fast Forward co-founder Jeffrey Schnapp talks about his company’s cargo-carrying robot called the Gita on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston. The machine uses cameras and sensors to follow its owner carrying groceries and other items. (AP Photo/Matt O’Brien)

Piaggio Fast Forward co-founder Jeffrey Schnapp talks about his company’s cargo-carrying robot called the Gita on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston. The machine uses cameras and sensors to follow its owner carrying groceries and other items. (AP Photo/Matt O’Brien)

Grocery-carrying robots are coming. Do we need them?

Tech industry analysts are already declaring the Gita as doomed to fail

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 company that makes the Vespa scooter, is offering a stylish alternative to those blandly utilitarian machines — albeit one that weighs 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and costs $3,250.

It’s 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 the 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 sidewalk.

“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.

“That’s a lot of money for what is in effect just a cargo-carrying robot that’s going to carry your groceries,” said Forrester technology analyst J.P. Gownder.

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 doesn’t 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 co-founder, Jeffrey Schnapp.

Other startups like Starship Technologies have a more conventional business plan for their own delivery robots. The company charges a delivery fee starting at $1.99 if you order its rovers to bring you a Starbucks coffee or a lunch from Panda Express.

So far, the best habitat to find Starship’s six-wheelers are relatively confined spaces such as college campuses; the University of Houston and the University of Wisconsin-Madison rolled them out this fall. The robots, which look like oversized ice chests on wheels, can carry up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

“I love them. I think they’re so cute!” University of Houston freshman Sadie Garcia said as one of the machines rolled up with a bagel sandwich she’d ordered. She said she was so cold she didn’t want to leave her dorm.

Starship co-founder Ahti Heinla said his San Francisco startup once looked at selling the machines directly to consumers, but dropped the idea after realizing it would have to price them at more than $3,000.

Amazon is experimenting with a similar-looking machine that delivers retail goods in a handful of U.S. neighbourhoods. FedEx is testing its own delivery rover in partnership with Pizza Hut, Walmart, Target and Walgreens. Ford has showed off a gangly two-legged robot to carry items to homes. So far, none are as far along as Starship, which has hundreds of its machines already in service.

While Forrester’s Gownder isn’t impressed with the Gita, he’s bullish about delivery robots of the Starship variety because their autonomy will help save labour costs. Gownder said it’s more of a question of whether ground-based rovers or aerial delivery drones will prove more successful.

The wheeled cargo robots that have already made it out into the wild have significant limitations.

Starship’s machines still require plenty of manual supervision to load them with food orders. They rely on remote pilots to troubleshoot navigation problems. Customers also have to check a phone app to tell the vehicle where to go and to unlock the bin once it arrives.

The Gita, meanwhile, 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 $100.

___

Associated Press video journalists John L. Mone in Houston and Rodrique Ngowi in Cambridge, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.

Matt O’Brien, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maureen Thom holds a can of Suck it Cancer Pale Ale and a heart created by her son Michael ‘Chili’ Thom when he was in kindergarten. (Submitted photo)
Backcountry Brewing creates limited edition beer to fundraise for BC Cancer Foundation

Squamish based beer company Backcountry Brewing has released a limited edition batch… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ staff and trustees held their annual general board meeting Dec. 2 via Microsoft Teams. (SD68 image)
Nanaimo Ladysmith school district chairperson retains role, new vice-chair chosen

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools held annual general meeting Wednesday

The Chemainus Health Care Auxiliary is taking a pro-active approach and closing the thrift shop as a precautionary measure as of Saturday. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Chemainus Health Care Auxiliary Thrift Shop closing again as a precautionary measure

Second closure this year will last at least six weeks due to the COVID situation

Jon Lefebure went back to construction after losing the 2018 mayor’s post in North Cowichan to work on the Cottages On Willow. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Former North Cowichan mayor retools priorities with construction project

Fresh air a benefit and satisfaction results from building eight-unit housing complex

Protesters stand in front of a truck carrying logs to the WFP Ladysmith log sort. (Cole Schisler photo)
Protesters block entrance to Western Forest Products in Ladysmith

Blockade cleared by Ladysmith RCMP around noon, December 2

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

Three more health care outbreaks, 12 deaths

Emergency crews used a backhoe loader to clear fire debris from the scene of a fire on Wesley Street Thursday as police and firefighters gathered up propane tanks, stoves and fireplaces used by camp residents to heat tents. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
City of Nanaimo dismantles downtown homeless encampment after fire

Four to six tents burned up in Wesley Street fire Thursday, Dec. 3

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

BC Ambulance Services reassures people that the service is well staffed and ready to respond. Photo by Don Bodger
BC Ambulance assures the Island community they’re ‘fully staffed’

‘Paramedics are not limited to a geographical area.’ — BCEHS

(Pixabay)
Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated with the second wave, study finds

Increased substance use one of the ways people are coping

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

An RCMP officer confers with military rescuers outside their Cormorant helicopter near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
Good Samaritan helped Kootenay police nab, rescue suspect which drew armed forces response

Midway RCMP said a Good Samaritan helped track the suspect, then brought the arresting officer dry socks

Most Read