San Francisco curbs sidewalk-hogging delivery robots
San Francisco curbs sidewalk-hogging delivery robots
Marble autonomous delivery robot (credit: Marble)

San Francisco curbs sidewalk-hogging delivery robots

Regulations limiting the number of delivery robots permitted on sidewalks have been passed, as activists push back against the rise of delivery automation startups.

When a world-renowned centre of innovation such as San Francisco faces opposition to disruption, it’s a sharp reminder of the need for regulations to keep pace with technological advancements. Washington DC, Virginia and Idaho already have laws permitting delivery robots to operate, but San Francisco has been slower to legislate for the technology, despite Silicon Valley’s proximity.

We’ve seen this sort of regulatory scrambling in response to the emergence of Uber and Airbnb. Delivery robots are the latest targets to face the scrutiny of the law. Companies such as Marble and Starship are springing up to offer “robots as a service”, with business models that enable food retailers to contract out delivery to automated alternatives.

Read more: Hermes and Starship Technologies to test delivery robots in London

What regulation means for delivery robots

San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee, who authored the legislation, originally pursued a ban on such robots, arguing that the city’s streets “are for people, not robots”. However, this absolute approach was relaxed in October to look at regulation instead.

“Not every innovation is all that great for society,” said Yee, addressing the city’s Board of Supervisors. “If we don’t value our society, if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot… What is happening?”

“When it comes to being proactive about the development of common-sense regulations for commuter shuttles or the sharing economy, such as Airbnb or Uber, somehow we have sent the signal that it is acceptable to act now and ask for forgiveness later,” Yee said at a public hearing on the legislation in October. “That is not an example of a city that leads.”

Following the legislation, each company will be limited to three robot permits, and only nine will be available at any time for the entire city. The robots will also be restricted to certain industrial areas, 6-feet wide sidewalks and must be chaperoned at all times. On top of this, a maximum speed of 3 miles per hour will be imposed. Together, these rules will severely restrict the ambitions of the likes of Marble and Starship.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce lobbied against an all-out ban of such robots, saying it “could create a massive barrier to future innovation in the industry”. Other proponents argued that robots could play an important part in delivering medicines to elderly members of the community who are unable to get to a pharmacy.

Read more: Ford, Domino’s Pizza to trial self-driving delivery service in US

Guiding innovation and disruption

Nonetheless, the overcrowding of sidewalks is undeniably an issue. They simply weren’t designed to accommodate robots too, and activists stressed the risk delivery robots pose to the elderly and disabled.

“Sidewalks, I believe, are not playgrounds for the new remote-controlled toys of the clever to make money and eliminate jobs,” said Lorraine Petty, an activist with the community group Senior and Disability Action, the Guardian reports. “They’re for us to walk.”

In the long term, some cities may start building designated lanes for robots. For many though, the issue goes beyond the monopolizing of sidewalks. “Are robots necessary?” asked San Francisco resident Lori Liederman. “Maybe it isn’t just our safety that’s in jeopardy. Maybe it’s our humanity as well.”

Philosophy aside, like most automation, delivery robots have the potential to both harm and benefit society. It comes down to scale, what they’re delivering and why. Often, we’d benefit from fetching food ourselves or using a human delivery service but in other cases robot deliveries could augment existing services, or provide an affordable lifeline to isolated individuals.

This scope for benefit and harm is common to disruption and the hopes, fears and unknowns that come with it. In the face of such, there is a very real need for regulation to protect the wider interests of society, while leaving space to innovate and grow. It’s a difficult balance, that encompasses technical, social, legal and economic considerations.

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