John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
This sad luggage can't climb stairs and will phone you like a needy friend if you outrun it.
The Internet has devoted much attention to this caterpillar-tracked suitcase that trails behind you at the airport like a dog that urinated on the rug. So I'm going to just focus on why in reality it would never work (and try to come up with more reasons than Businessweek did.) First, here are the details about the quizzical carry-all, made by Spanish inventor Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, from a write-up yesterday at Bornrich:
The Hop! is one unique suitcase and a great piece of luggage that will provide the ultimate comfort and usability value to its owner. This compressed air-powered suitcase is equipped with innovative two-track caterpillar track system that can enable it to crawl behind you around the airport. However, the tracks would not be able to work well on stairs. It has the ability to lock onto your mobile phone signal with its three inbuilt receivers and then it triangulates its position in a manner that it follows you from a fixed distance with the help of a micro-controller. In case it does lose its way and gets ‘lost’ then the suitcase automatically locks itself and your cell phone is vibrated to alert you of the situation.
So right there in that last supposed benefit of the "smart" suitcase – blowing up your phone should you outrun it – is a major flaw: It's a slug. At the time last year when the prototype won a Dyson award, it crawled and lurched around as if somebody had shot it with a tranquilizer dart. In airports, people are constantly rushing to get to the gate or a taxi stand; relying on a carrier for your baggage that moves as fast as a small child would be a major liability. I can easily imagine a traveler rushing down a terminal hallway with this thing clutched in his arms, rather than tolerate its torturous mosey.
Sure, it can call you like a needy, ditched friend when it gets too far behind, is confronted by stairs, or gets knocked over and stranded, a clothing-stuffed beetle lying helpless on its back. That's great if you're monitoring your phone and hadn't turned it off prior due to the flight attendant's orders. If the SOS calls go unanswered, it's a crap shoot what might happen to your newfangled friend. Would somebody scoop it up and made it their own slave-bot? Would scrap-hungry vandals rip it apart like a car parked overnight in a dicey part of Detroit?
Now, can we talk about security? If you think getting through a TSA gauntlet with a metal hip joint is tough, imagine trying to push past with a package stuffed with esoteric electronics and military-style tank treads. You could always just pretend you're on your own and have it sneak through behind you, but that's asking for some trigger-happy officer to blast your expensive suitcase with a beanbag gun – and maybe you, too, for causing an inconvenience.
With so much focus nowadays on reporting unattended luggage at airports, it's also a little risky deploying a mysterious box that is not visibly connected in any way to its owner. As one of my coworkers has pointed out, the design of the suitcase, reminiscent of a remote-controlled vehicle, looks ideal for a terrorist to send an IED into a crowd.
I don't know about the weight of The Hop!, but given that it has to carry several days' worth of luggage it's probably heavy enough that stuffing it into an overhead bin would be like dead-lifting a sack of bowling balls. Should it accidentally motor over the toe-bones of an innocent bystander, would it crush them to powder? What if you got to the departure gate and turned around only to find a pack of enraged travelers, victims of hit-and-runs committed by your unapologetic luggage?
Given that it relies on Bluetooth, the suitcase could be vulnerable to malicious hacking. You might think you'll be resting in a hotel in Minneapolis at the end of the day, but it could actually be in a holding cage, thanks to an evil teenage genius who ordered your luggage on a suicide mission down the runway.
That's all the bitching I've got right now – if anybody else would like to take a jab, by all means go ahead.
Images from the James Dyson Award