Behold, the self-driving suitcase

We have officially reached peak "self-driving"
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

I've been wrong before. Plenty of times.

Twitter? Never gonna be a thing. That guy is running for president? Gimme a break.

But this time I'm feeling confident. Self-driving luggage is a bridge too far.

Against me in this debate are a handful of companies that have recently debuted next-gen suitcases designed to follow the leader, as well as a number of tech and crowdfunding investors who have backed high profile projects.

First up is Travelmate by Travelmate Robotics. The suitcase, which comes in three sizes, recently landed nearly $800k in Indiegogo funding.

The Travelmate comes with some cool features. Its removable battery (a requirement for checked luggage after many airlines rallied against smart luggage last year) can be wirelessly charged.

With a touch-enabled lock, a built-in scale, and onboard GPS, it has some of the cooler features of high-end smart bags.

But Travelmate's big pitch is its ability to follow its owner through a crowded airport via a link to a smartphone.

It has a leg up on the competition with its built-in obstacle avoidance. As it approaches a concrete pillar, for example, it will stop, the LEDs on the face will glow red, and the bag's owner will be alerted.

Travelmate also has the advantage of a horizontal mode, meaning additional bags can be stacked on top. Without a system to keep additional bags from flying off as the robot veers through crowds, I remain skeptical. But there's potential.

The Travelmate starts at $1099 for the smallest version and goes up to $1495 for the large, which isn't cheap.


Also getting buzz is the Puppy 1 by Chinese firm 90Fun. This is what would happen if a Segway and a Samsonite had a baby.

The self-balancing, two-wheeled suitcase follows anyone holding a special remote control. It can also be controlled manually via a joystick on the remote.

Lacking obstacle-avoidance, however, it's a real hazard in a crowd or in all but the widest of linoleum-adorned terminals.

Props to the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern for a quip the Puppy 1 is going to have a hard time living down. Told by a rep the product would be out later this year, she responded: "I just hope by then puppy's been trained."

Last up is the CX-1, which my CNET colleague Bridget Carey had a chance to demo at this year's CES.

Developed by another Chinese firm, Forward X, the CX-1 uses a front camera to follow the leader. Travelers wear a special wristband that the suitcase homes in on. The wristband will alert the owner if someone tries to nab the bag behind their back ... a very real possibility for any of these costly, untethered robots.

CES reviews were mixed, with some reporting that sudden sideways movements would fool the suitcase, causing it to stop following along. Not a good sign for luggage designed to keep pace in a frenetic environment.

The CX-1 is still in prototype phase, though the company plans to release it later this year. No word on pricing.

What all these devices have in common is the potential to relieve travelers from having to handle their luggage as they dash through airports. I get the appeal, but I still bristle at the idea of an airport full of autonomous suitcases. It's hard for me to envision even a refined autonomous bag concept working on a Monday morning at LAX, for example.

Advocates of the technology would counter that the bags can be used in non-self-driving mode in crowded environments.

Fine. But I can't help wondering if these suitcases don't enable or even encourage one of the cardinal sins of air travel: A generalized aloofness or lack of regard for others. Airports test the resolve of even the most gracious and present among us. The last thing weary travelers need is someone's robot bag cutting them off.

If that's not a good enough reason for you, I'll add another. Airports are stringently regulated spaces. Rules about what passengers can and can't do once they enter the security line are made unilaterally and can change in a heartbeat. Among the biggest fears for aviation authorities is a suspicious or unattended piece of luggage.

In light of all that, how many runaway suitcases will it take before they're unequivocally banned? Considering the expected prices of these things, that's a big risk.

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