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

McDonald’s on Nicol Street in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file photo)
McDonald’s in Nanaimo reports COVID-19 case

Employee at Nicol Street location last worked Jan. 17

This coming Thursday, Jan. 28, is Bell Let’s Talk Day, and conversations about mental health would serve many of us well as the pandemic persists. (Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection)
Editorial: Let’s talk about our mental health in a pandemic

Bell Let’s Talk Day is Thursday, Jan. 28

Nanaimo RCMP are looking for Peter Ludvigson who is wanted on a Canada-wide warrant. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo man wanted, police say he violated terms of his release

Warrant out for 45-year-old Peter Ludvigson

Nanaimo’s Fiddelium fiddle ensemble, seen here at a fiddle workshop with visiting instructors Gordon Stobbe and J.J. Guy this summer, is recording its first album. (Photo courtesy Trish Horrocks)
Nanaimo youth fiddle ensemble Fiddelium recording first album

Fiddlers recording their parts one at a time in observance of COVID-19 safety

Jesse Savidant, 31, is wanted by the RCMP after failing to appear in provincial court in Nanaimo in December. Police warn Savidant should be considered violent. (Photo Submitted)
Warrant out for man with alleged stolen property offences across Vancouver Island

Jesse Savidant did not appear for court date in Nanaimo last month, say RCMP

Emergency crews were called to a three-vehicle crash Monday morning on the old Island Highway close to Rock City Road. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Car, pickup and semi truck crash along the highway in Nanaimo

Incident happened in front of Rock City Plaza on Monday morning

Ben Tyler was working on a Nicola area ranch when he disappeared. File photo
Ben Tyler was working on a Nicola area ranch when he disappeared. File photo
2 years after his riderless horse was found, police believe Merritt cowboy was killed

Two years after he went missing, Ben Tyner’s family makes video plea for information

A ground worker wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 unloads lobsters from a WestJet Airlines flight at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, January 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Trudeau teases stricter travel measures; Canadians flying to U.S. now need COVID test

Prime minister says measures need to not hurt imports and essential trade

The shirts sell for $45, with 30 per cent of proceeds from each sale going to Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. (Madame Premier/Sarah Elder-Chamanara)
Canadian company launches ‘hysterical’ T-Shirt to combat health officials’ use of word

A partnership with Tamara Taggart will see women broadcast the word on a T-shirt or tote bag

ICBC has seen savings on crash and injury claims in the COVID-19 pandemic, with traffic on B.C. roads reduced. (Penticton Western News)
ICBC opens online calculator for rate savings starting in May

Bypassing courts expected to save 20% on average

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
16% boom predicted for B.C. real estate sales in 2021: experts

Along with sales, the average price of homes is also predicted to rise, by nearly 8 percent

The trial of Harry Richardson began Monday at the Nelson courthouse. File photo
Trial of man accused of shooting RCMP officer in West Kootenay in 2019 begins

Harry Richardson is facing five charges in a Nelson courtroom

FILE – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks at a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine CEO ‘very, very clear’ that Canada’s contracts will be honoured: Trudeau

Trudeau says he spoke to Moderna CEO on the morning of Jan. 26

Brad Windsor has been an advocate for years to get sidewalks installed along Milburn Drive in Colwood, but to no avail. He wants city council to commit to making Milburn a priority lane for sidewalk construction in the future. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
VIDEO: Dramatic crash caught on B.C. home security camera

Angry residents say video highlights need for sidewalks in B.C. residential neighbourhood

Most Read