Mar 4, 2021 - Economy

Sidewalk robots get legal rights as "pedestrians"

A sidewalk robot strolls down the sidewalk at the University of Texas in Dallas.

"We’ve got about 1,000 of them running around out there," Ryan Tuohy of Starship tells Axios. Photo courtesy of Starship Technologies.

As small robots proliferate on sidewalks and city streets, so does legislation that grants them generous access rights and even classifies them, in the case of Pennsylvania, as "pedestrians."

Why it matters: Fears of a dystopian urban world where people dodge heavy, fast-moving droids are colliding with the aims of robot developers large and small — including Amazon and FedEx — to deploy delivery fleets.

  • "The sidewalk is the new hot debated space that the aerial drones were maybe three or five years ago," says Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, which makes a suitcase-sized $3,250 robot called gita that follows its owner around.
  • "There's also a lot of people trying to deploy robots on bike lanes" where the bots can go faster than on sidewalks, he said.

Driving the news: States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin have passed what are considered to be liberal rules permitting robots to operate on sidewalks — prompting pushback from cities like Pittsburgh that fear mishaps.

  • In Pennsylvania, robot "pedestrians" can weigh up to 550 pounds and drive up to 12 mph.
  • "Opposition has largely come from pedestrian and accessibility advocates, as well as labor unions like the Teamsters," per the Pittsburgh City Paper.
  • The laws are a boon to Amazon's Scout delivery robot and FedEx's Roxo, which are being tested in urban and suburban settings.
  • "Backers say the laws will usher in a future where household items show up in a matter of hours, with fewer idling delivery vans blocking traffic and spewing emissions," per Wired.

The other side: Some technology evangelists think these laws are a spectacularly bad idea.

  • The National Association of City Transportation Officials — NACTO — says the robots "should be severely restricted if not banned outright."
  • "Uncoordinated autonomous delivery services could flood sidewalks with bots, making walking increasingly difficult and unpleasant," NACTO says in a report.
  • "Drone delivery could significantly increase noise pollution and add a new dimension of chaos to urban streets."
  • San Francisco did ban sidewalk robots in 2017, but has made at least one exception — for a test of a Postmates bot called Serve.

Where it stands: Starship Technology, which is in the vanguard of autonomous delivery robots, has deployed its "coolers on wheels" on more than 15 college campuses and begun a grocery-delivery program with Save Mart in Modesto, California.

  • "The machines are designed to roll on sidewalks, crosswalks, places where pedestrians can go," Ryan Tuohy, SVP of business development at Starship Technologies, tells Axios.
  • "They can carry about 3 bags of groceries or half a dozen pizzas with drinks."
  • Ten states plus D.C. have passed laws explicitly allowing the robots to operate, Tuohy says, and those are the places where Starship does business: "We don’t want to create a precedent that you just show up and start operating."

Yes, but: There have been reports of Starship robots getting stuck and driving into a canal.

  • "Last October, the University of Pittsburgh paused testing of Starship robots after one wheelchair-using student tweeted that one partially blocked a curb ramp," Fast Company reported.
  • "The school resumed tests after Starship tweaked its software, then pronounced the service operational in January."

The bottom line: "We're still in the really early stages of deciding what it means to have a bot running round the sidewalk," Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, tells Axios.

  • 'What happens if this thing falls over? What happens if it breaks? Where is the liability? What kind of insurance do you need?"
  • "Because this is so early in development, a lot of legislators really haven’t had time to think of what the ramifications are."

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