Why Italian Vehicle-Maker Piaggio Set Up a New Lab to Design Robots

By Scott Kirsner |  March 7, 2017

Michele Colaninno is emphatic about what he didn’t want from a new lab that the vehicle-maker Piaggio Group set up in 2015.

“We didn’t want to create just a think tank,” says Colaninno, a director of Piaggio and chief executive of the company that owns it, Immsi Group. “We agreed that we must have an output that would be a physical product. It was not intended to be a research team.”

Michele Colaninno, Chairman of the Board of Piaggio Fast Forward.

But while Piaggio, headquartered in Pontedera, Italy, is best-known for the scooters and motorcycles it produces — Vespa and Moto Guzzi are among its brands — the new lab, dubbed Piaggio Fast Forward, wouldn’t necessarily be creating vehicles with two or four wheels that would travel on roads. “I don’t think the evolution of mobility is still four wheels with an engine,” Colaninno says. “The car is a 1900s idea.”

Among the challenges that Colaninno wanted Piaggio Fast Forward to explore were traffic congestion, pollution, and moving goods efficiently in dense urban areas — perhaps the next generation of a messenger zipping through gridlock astride a Vespa.

Location and Staffing

Colaninno says that while Piaggio has operations in 100 countries, he wanted to put the new lab in the U.S.: “My customers are changing, and the U.S. is the place where everything started, in terms of consumer behaviors changing and retailing going from shops to the Net.” They chose an industrial neighborhood of Boston, a city with deep engineering expertise, even though it has few ties to the automotive industry.

The leaders of Piaggio Fast Forward came from the worlds of academia, design, and entrepreneurship, and none of the 30 employees had previously worked for Piaggio. “Ninety percent of a success story is people,” Colaninno says. “The team working here is perfect for analyzing the future, and understanding the customer needs for the future. It’s a multicultural base, and multidisciplinary.”

“We went around focusing on problems,” says Chief Operating Officer Sasha Hoffman. “What pain points could we solve? Why don’t people move more in cities? What are the limitations?” CEO Jeffrey Schnapp says that late 2015 was dedicated to “fully rendering and describing a whole set of conceivable vehicles. We gradually tried to shoot holes in them, and we got to Gita by process of elimination.”

The First Two Products

Gita (pronounced jee-tah), the first product from Piaggio Fast Forward, is a cargo-carrying robot — or, as Colaninno calls it, “a productivity object.” It can hold 40 pounds of payload, and it is designed not to travel independently, but to follow a human wearing a special belt. “We wanted to leverage humans as navigators, and create a high degree of comfort, so that this can be integrated into everyday life,” says Hoffman. Gita travels at a maximum speed of 22 miles per hour, so it’s fast enough to tag along with someone who is running or riding a bike.

“We wanted to be sure that the things it could do were meaningful – it isn’t just a little shopping cart or a suitcase with a motor,” Schnapp adds. “We want Gita to be an object like the Vespa was an object — it’s functional, it does things, it’s an efficient way to navigate tight spaces.”

Piaggio Fast Forward unveiled Gita and a larger sibling, Kilo, at an event in Boston in February. (Kilo can carry up to 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds.) Pricing and a release date haven’t yet been announced; Hoffman says that the next six to eight months will be dedicated to “trying them out in a range of different environments.”

Colaninno envisions products like Gita and Kilo being helpful not just for a shopper carrying groceries home from the store, but also in a warehouse or factory floor. The robots can also perform security and surveillance tasks. For delivery purposes, a chain of Gitas or Kilos could follow one another in a convoy. Schnapp says the idea was to build “a platform for many things, not just solve one problem. Communities will hack them and do things we wouldn’t even think of. My dream is that Gita becomes a 100 percent customized product, with customers asking us, ‘Hey, PFF, can you do this with it? What about this?'”

Interacting with the Rest of Piaggio

Greg Lynn, Sasha Hoffman, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Michele Colaninno, with Gita.

Piaggio R&D staffers from Italy have been traveling to Boston — and vice versa — as PFF has been getting up and running.Hoffman says that Piaggio Group employees have been especially helpful on the design of Gita’s braking system and balance.

“My major issue is making sure people speak to each other,” Colaninno says. “It’s the most diffiucult thing in managing a business.”

And PFF has been consciously set up as a business. Every time that Colaninno or other Piaggio executives come to town, Hoffman says, “they ask about revenue, markets, business cases. They treat us like any of their other business lines.”

Still, it’s clear that PFF is focusing on the future in a way that’s different from one of Piaggio’s more traditional business units. “We wanted to create a space outside the fold of the parent company that would really be able to experiment with and model products for a world still emerging,” Schnapp says. “It’s not a world that travels on roadways — a world where artificial intelligence and machine learning and robotics are all wedded to vehicle design.”