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.
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 the repercussions.
- In Pennsylvania, robot "pedestrians" can weigh up to 550 pounds and drive up to 12 mph on sidewalks.
- 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: The National Association of City Transportation Officials — NACTO — says the robots "should be severely restricted if not banned outright."
Where it stands: Starship Technology has deployed its "coolers on wheels" on more than 15 college campuses and just started grocery delivery with Save Mart in Modesto, California.
- "They can carry about three bags of groceries or half a dozen pizzas with drinks," Ryan Tuohy, SVP of business development at Starship Technologies, tells Axios.
- The company warns against putting children or dogs in them.
But: There've 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 in September 2020.
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.
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