Robot Etiquette

Designing Autonomous Machines for Pedestrian Spaces

Greg Lynn
4 min readJan 11, 2020

For centuries, humans have cohabitated in a world with machines, and both humans and machines have adapted in this partnership. At the dawn of the horseless era, the automobile entered our streets and cities as a complicated, high speed, life-changing innovation. It has now become an everyday product we are familiar with operating starting at a young age. Today, at the dawn of the driverless era, we are beginning to share the world with robots. With these complex mobile machines new challenges arise for designers in the context of the public sphere:

How will self-driving machines integrate with social norms?

In what ways should they move to be legible to untrained bystanders?

What human motions can machines predict while planning their paths?

A couple walking with a gita robot at the Boston Seaport

For the self-driving car industry, the primary focus is on detecting and avoiding people, other cars, and random objects. This autonomous vehicle thinking is appropriate for cars and trucks that weigh tons travelling at high speeds on freeways and streets. Simply applying self-driving car navigation to sidewalk delivery robots risks cluttering pedestrian environments with tiny trucks.

Building technology products that move the way people move

When it comes to lightweight machines that travel at low speeds in the public realm on sidewalks, parks, lobbies, corridors and boardwalks there are alternative interactions with people other than detection and avoidance. For these machines we need an approach that makes us more, rather than less, human. Machines need to be designed with humans in mind, mimicking the acceleration, deceleration and turning radius of people.

At Piaggio Fast Forward, our mission is to build technology products that move the way that people move. We use technology to help people move further, faster and more frequently. People provide the leadership for the complex interactions between humans and machines moving together in pedestrian environments. The knowledge of understanding how people move is the foundation of our mission.

Smart Behaviors

We begin all of our design and engineering by observing people. After three years of detailed observation, we have built an extensive knowledge base: how people walk with each other; the difference between walking with an adult and a child; how people move with the things they carry, drag, push and hold; predicting when people plan to turn a corner and how they turn a corner; how they walk through doors and hold them open for each other; how close they are to one another when they stand and when they walk; how people stop and start moving and how much room they require; the dynamic distance they keep in front and behind one another while walking at different speeds; the leading and following positions people take while moving. These are just a few of the many insights we gained with our Smart Behaviors team after thousands of hours capturing, observing, analyzing and documenting how people move and interact.

Design specification for comfortable following distance relative to walking speed

Piaggio Fast Forward’s approach is to understand pedestrian etiquette and design machines that share this understanding.

Pedestrian Friendly Shapes not Tiny Trucks

These insights not only guide the detection and navigation of our software algorithms, they also drive the size, shape and locomotion of our products. This is why our first product gita™ is not a tiny truck but a robot that balances on large wheels, that accelerates and decelerates with the speed and distance of a person, and that can rotate in place as fast as a person with a zero turning radius. Even when designing sound, lighting and color we begin with the culture of the sidewalk, park and building interior rather than with the logic or styling of cars and trucks.

The overall form of gita expresses its direction and movement. Its rounded surfaces and lack of corners are slippery for moving past and around people. Its spherical shape expresses its ability to spin in place. Despite its roundness, it has a front, back and sides giving it a distinct directionality. The front has a sensor array with prominent lenses oriented forward and to the side to indicate the field of view that gita uses to sense both the user who it is following as well as bystanders.

Diagram showing gita’s sensors and their cones of view

Although we design apps for managing our products, they are not used while moving. Instead, all interactions such as pairing, following, unpairing and parking are done with two buttons. As we all know, the common practice of people walking while looking at screens in their hands is dangerous and alienating. Freeing people’s hands from devices and lifting their eyes up from screens so they can look at one another and their environment without digital mediation is a way to not only improve speed and efficiency of travel but also to improve the quality of a journey in terms of awareness of the environment.

What is most important is that robots designed for pedestrian environments do not import the logic of self-driving cars but begin with an understanding of pedestrian etiquette. The result is a robot with etiquette.