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

‘Snowmaggedon 2020’ has passed, but 20-30 milimetres of rain expected Friday

Residents should brace for rain and clear drains to prevent localized flooding

What happens in the Cowichan Valley when an earthquake strikes

When an earthquake does happen, will the Cowichan Valley be ready for it?

Exploring life, the afterlife, and near death experiences with Dr. Lynn Echevarria

Echevarria will deliver a talk to the LRCA Seniors Centre Tuesday, January 21 at 1:30 pm

Winter storm warning now in effect for Island’s east coast

Environment Canada issues new weather warning late Wednesday afternoon

Town of Ladysmith snow removal crews prepared to respond to overnight snowfall

10 to 15 centimetres of snow are expected for Ladysmith overnight Tuesday into Wednesday morning

Vancouver Island Pride weekend returns to Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Building on the success of last year’s family-friendly pride festival on Vancouver… Continue reading

Scarlett Point lighthouse keeper wins a million bucks playing the lottery

“I usually just get a quick pick, so I didn’t expect to win a big prize”

Poll suggests some don’t think Canada should send troops to stop genocide

The findings are being released just before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

B.C. woman crowned the fastest female marathon runner in Canadian history

Malindi Elmore ran an incredible 2:24:50 at the Houston Marathon

Alberta bulldog breeder ordered to give refund to B.C. buyer due to puppy’s behaviour

Tribunal ruled a verbal agreement to send a new dog superseded the written contract

UPDATED: Man dies in backcountry near Nelson’s Whitewater Ski Resort

The victim was found unresponsive in a tree well Friday

Cariboo Memorial Hospital on the mend after cold weather wreaks havoc

Burst pipes and water leaks cause three different incidents

Site of planned Jumbo Valley ski resort to be protected, managed by First Nations

Development rights permanently retired for site of proposed year-round ski resort west of Invermere

Most Read