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"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."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Ubisoft workers demand company accountability in open letter

Photo: Frederic Brown / Getty Images

Close to 500 current and former employees of “Assassin’s Creed” publisher Ubisoft are standing in solidarity with protesting game developers at Activision Blizzard with a letter that criticizes their company's handling of sexual misconduct.

Why it matters: Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard workers are framing the actions as part of a bigger movement meant to have lasting change in the industry and its culture.

Heat dome roasts Northwest, Central states as "derecho" threat looms in Midwest

Weather map showing a sprawling heat dome centered over Kansas on July 30, 2021. (WeatherBell.com)

The latest in a series of relentless heat waves is bringing dangerously hot temperatures to a the Central U.S. on Wednesday, and will contribute to a severe thunderstorm outbreak across the Upper Midwest. The heat will expand in scope toward the end of the week.

The big picture: Heat watches, warnings and advisories are in effect across 19 states, from Portland, Oregon east to Minneapolis, and running all the way south to New Orleans. Temperatures of between 10°F and 15°F above average in these areas along with high humidity poses a public health threat.

Google offices to mandate vaccines

Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Google announced Wednesday it would require all in-office workers and visitors to be vaccinated and that employees could continue working from home through Oct. 18.

Why it matters: It's another sign that the Delta variant's spread is upending corporate plans for a quick and steady resumption of in-office work.

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