FutureStructure

Virginia Governor Signs Bill to Allow Autonomous Delivery Robots

While the state legislation opens the door to the new technology, each city or county has to approve laws at the local level before they operate.

by Jordan Pascale, The Virginian-Pilot / June 2, 2017

(TNS) -- Autonomous delivery robots will be legal on Virginia sidewalks starting July 1, with approval from local city councils.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation Thursday at Town Center in Virginia Beach to approve the cooler-like robots that could someday carry lunch, groceries or medicine to your door.

Virginia was the first state to introduce legislation on the device . Wisconsin, Idaho, Florida and others have since followed.

“We are leading in this space,” McAuliffe said.

“This will benefit those without cars, people with disabilities and get delivery vehicles off the road at the same time.

“It’s a win-win situation.”

Starship Technologies, the company that operates the robots, praised Virginia for its openness to the idea.

While the legislation opens the door to the new technology, each city or county has to approve them at the local level before they operate.

Virginia Beach and Norfolk officials lobbied the company to start in their cities, but there is no official timeline for launch of the service.

The company plans to start mapping Virginia cities soon and is working to find commercial partners. The robots have been paired with Domino’s Pizza in Germany and Postmates, a food and package delivery service, in London.

“We want to be in Virginia as soon as possible,” said David Catania, who does government affairs for Starship.

Employees load the robot’s compartment and it will mosey off to its destination at 4 mph or less. It can alert people of its presence through speakers.

Like autonomous vehicles, the robots have cameras, GPS, sensors and other obstacle-detection features so they don’t bump into anything. A human oversees things and can make decisions on the robot’s behalf if it gets into a pickle.

In May, a San Francisco councilman said he wanted to ban the devices in his city over safety concerns and tripping hazards. Wired reports there haven’t been any reported incidents, but the official wants to be safe rather than sorry.

Virginia law allows the devices on sidewalks, shared-use paths and crosswalks in the commonwealth.

Catania said Starship robots have a good safety record, traveling 32,000 miles and interacting with 6.6 million people without a single injury.

The bill was introduced by Virginia Beach-area Del. Ron Villanueva and Sen. Bill DeSteph.

Villaneuva said he’s comfortable with the safety and said the law can be adjusted if issues crop up. He said he’d rather be on the forefront of innovation than trying to catch up later.

“The tech is here now,” Villanueva.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.