Sun, Dec 01, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Grocery-carrying robots are here – do we need them?

By Matt O’Brien  /  AP, BOSTON

Piaggio Fast Forward cofounder Jeffrey Schnapp talks about the company’s delivery robot, Gita, in Boston on Nov. 11.

Photo: AP

The first cargo-carrying robot marketed directly to consumers is on sale this holiday season. However, how many people are ready to ditch their second car to buy a two-wheeled rover that can follow them around like a dog?

Giants like Amazon.com Inc, FedEx Corp and Ford Motor Co have already been experimenting with sending delivery robots to doorsteps.

Now Piaggio & C SpA, the Italian company that makes the Vespa scooter, is offering a stylish alternative to those blandly utilitarian machines — albeit one that weighs 23kg and costs US$3,250.

It is named the Gita 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 neighborhood you decided to move to because it was so walkable,” said Greg Lynn, chief executive officer 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 Research 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 signaled it was ready for a neighborhood 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 smartphone or intrusive people-tracking technology such as facial recognition or GPS.

“It basically just locks onto you and tracks you,” Piaggio Fast Forward cofounder Jeffrey Schnapp said.

Other start-ups, such as Starship Technologies, have a more conventional business plan for their delivery robots. The company charges a delivery fee starting at US$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 9kg.

“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 had ordered.

She said she was so cold she did not want to leave her dorm.

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

Amazon is experimenting with a similar-looking machine that delivers retail goods in a handful of US neighborhoods. FedEx is testing its own delivery rover in partnership with Pizza Hut, Walmart Inc, Target Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

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