December 3, 2018   3 mins

It was the first year of the 21st century and excitement was building. For months, there’d been speculation about ‘project Ginger’ – a hi-tech breakthrough product with big-name backing. Some people got rather carried away, with rumours flying that ‘Ginger’ was a truly futuristic form of transport.

In the end, what was unveiled was not Marty McFly on a levitating skateboard, but the not-so-soaraway Segway – a two-wheeled electric scooter.

To be fair, the technology was quite impressive – especially the self-balancing mechanism. However, as a commercial product, it was deemed too expensive, too cumbersome and too nerdy to revolutionise personal transport. Look around you in any town or city and you can see that the critics were right – the Segway did not change our way of life.

However, unlike the infamous Sinclair C5 (another ill-fated personal transport ‘solution’), the product didn’t die. It found niches here and there, and the company found new owners.

An article in The Economist brings the story into the present day:

“It took Segway a decade to hit its initial 13-month target to sell 100,000 units of its original two-wheeler. In 2018, just three years into production, Segway-Ninebot will sell 1m scooters, up from sales of 600,000 last year. Ninebot’s factory in Changzhou builds over 5,000 scooters a day. The firm’s backers, which include Xiaomi, valued it at $1.5bn in its latest funding round.”

The technology has evolved and product lines now include unicycles, ‘e-skates’ and ‘hoverboards’ (which don’t actually hover, but are much less bulky versions of the original Segway concept – i.e. a wheeled, self-balancing platform that you stand and ride around on).

While it remains to be seen whether the streets will ever fill with people using these devices, there is one of the company’s product lines that I think could prove highly consequential:

“[Gao Lufeng, chief executive of the company] has especially high hopes for delivery businesses. In five years’ time he wants unmanned delivery vehicles called Loomo, currently being trialled by its robotics arm with Meituan-Dianping, an online-services giant, to account for over half of Ninebot’s total revenue. Using artificial intelligence Loomo can wheel goods from the gate of a compound into lifts then up to office doors, and, as costs come down, could take them straight to workers’ desks…”

At the moment, Loomo is a hoverboard with robotic and AI functions. You can ride it, but among other abilities it can follow you around like a little robot dog. Judging by what Gao Lufeng told The Economist, the plan is to develop Loomo into an autonomous transportation unit.

This is a potentially enormous market – and not just within factories, warehouses and offices. Instead of delivery vans lumbering around our streets, imagine unmanned delivery pods bringing us our shopping. Such systems could also function as robotic porters, carrying our luggage for us and generally doing the heavy lifting.

Clearly, there’s investment going into the technology and, in theory, it should be easier to get right than the self-driving car. Automated delivery pods would be smaller and slower, therefore safer. They’d probably use pavements rather than roads – though, like a human pedestrian, they’d have to be able to cross the road safely. Even on the pavement, they’d need to avoid fixed and moving objects – including lampposts, joggers and urinating dogs.

The biggest challenge is likely to be crime. How would the delivery pods defend themselves and their cargo against theft and vandalism? Electric shocks would be out of the question, but not video surveillance. Equipped with cameras and network connections, the pods could transmit live footage of the crime (and the criminals) to the police.

In merely navigating the streets, they’d be constantly monitoring their surroundings. Therefore they wouldn’t just be delivery pods, they’d be mobile CCTV systems. If they also functioned as help points – and being networked devices with Al capabilities, why not – they’d could effectively serve as mini police officers.

Sooner or later we will find ourselves sharing our streets with robots. Whether we’ll find their presence annoying, creepy or reassuring remains to be seen.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.