On a quiet Saturday morning in May, I went for a lovely walk through my neighborhood with my family: my husband, my infant son, and a $3,250 robot named Gita.
Gita (pronounced “jeetah”) is an impressive piece of technology, but it is not subtle. Its body, while sleek, has the shape and heft of an ottoman. Its wheels emit a constant, midgrade whine as it lumbers down the sidewalk. For the better part of a weekend, it trailed me from a respectful, subservient distance of about three feet, stopping when I stopped and—more unsettlingly—speeding up when I sped up.
Walking from our home in Grant Park to the Larkin shopping complex on Memorial Drive ordinarily takes us about 20 minutes. Accompanied by a robot, the trip took closer to an hour, thanks to about a dozen people stopping us along the way to ask some version of, What the hell is that thing?
The shortest answer: Gita is a robot that follows you around and carries your stuff, like a butler but without a soul. The slightly longer answer: Gita is a two-wheeled, cargo-carrying robot that uses multiple sensors to navigate pedestrian paths while following its, um, owner. Boston-based Piaggio Fast Forward, a tech-design offshoot of the company behind Vespa, brought Gita to market in late 2019 and is piloting the bot in Atlanta now.
Designed for people who live in walkable communities, the Gita essentially acts as the trunk of a car for people who don’t have, or don’t want to rely on, cars. A mom might use it to schlep gear to a kid’s soccer game rather than loading up the Subaru. BeltLine-dwellers might fill its storage bin with rosé, snacks, and a blanket for a picnic in Piedmont Park. Someone living in Avalon could stock up on groceries without having to carry anything back to their luxury apartment. In my case, the most realistic way to replace the trunk of my Mazda would be to simply fill Gita with bags of clothing meant for Goodwill and let it follow me around for at least six months.
Atlanta isn’t the only city to welcome Gita, but in terms of a product designed for car-free living, it’s an interesting choice. (Ironically, the very weekend Gita arrived on my front porch, the entire metro was practically paralyzed by the panic-driven gas shortage following the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.)
Piaggio Fast Forward CEO Greg Lynn cites a number of reasons why he thinks Gita could succeed in Atlanta: the BeltLine, of course, but also the city’s rapid growth, the tech and entertainment industries, the city’s sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, and the climate, which simultaneously allows people to be outdoors throughout most of the year and makes the idea of not having to sweatily lug groceries much more appealing.
Plenty of passersby asked me the same question I had when I first read about Gita: Why not just use a backpack or a cart? “Nobody’s going to walk, like, three miles with a wagon,” says Lynn. He sees the device as a way to replace buying a car or, in the case of a family, owning a second one. Loaded down with lots of stuff, he adds, “a one-mile walk can feel really long, whereas, with a Gita, it’s a no-brainer to think about walking distances you’d never think about walking. So, it really does expand what you think of as an outdoor walking trip.”
During our weekend together, my Gita gamely fumbled its way up and down Cherokee Avenue, attracting stares and questions all along the way, its wheels steadily whirring their siren song to curious passersby. The robot can also stream music, so we cued up a corny droid-themed playlist—in part, I admit, to drown out said whirring. We made it to Grant Park Market, where we stocked up on some groceries and beer, and packed them into Gita’s storage bin for the walk (ride?) home. (The beer, if you’re wondering, was Monday Night Brewing’s Dr. Robot.) When we returned home, we lugged the 50-pound Gita up our front steps and into our hallway, where it stayed the rest of the weekend, silently blinking its all-seeing, luminous eye. We felt as though we were being watched.
Even though the bot handled most of the bumps in our knobbly sidewalks pretty well, it encountered the same mobility challenges that will sound depressingly familiar to most human pedestrians, especially wheelchair users. Mounting curbs without ADA-compliant ramps, or traversing huge cracks in sidewalk concrete, required both my husband and me to hoist the bot up and over the obstacle. I thought about taking it down to the farmers market in my neighborhood until I remembered that my route requires me to zigzag across Grant Street multiple times just to stay on a sidewalk and, when I’m pushing a stroller, step into the street to avoid concrete chasms and telephone poles.
My neighborhood is, admittedly, not a seamless, car-free oasis—but, aside from planned communities like Avalon and perhaps neighborhoods along the BeltLine, what parts of Atlanta are? The Atlanta for which Gita was designed is smooth, frictionless, with sidewalks that don’t resemble an earthquake disaster zone and infrastructure that actually makes it simple to choose a car-free life. An Atlanta through which a bipedal robot might, say, glide, rather than lumber and lurch. It’s the Atlanta of architectural renderings for live-work-play communities but maybe not real life. Or, at least, not the Atlanta we have today.
It’s easy to poke fun at a $3,000 robot butler, but I can see technology like Gita being valuable for some people, like seniors and wheelchair users, in the future—but only if Atlanta can get caught up to the present first. If this is the future, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
This article appears in our August 2021 issue.