Will San Francisco Ban Sidewalk Delivery Robots?

Robots that range in size from dorm fridge to shopping cart are currently trundling along sidewalks in several cities for pilot delivery programs.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / May 18, 2017
Dustin Haisler/e.Republic

(TNS) — Delivery robots, a sci-fi idea that recently entered real-world testing, would be banned from San Francisco sidewalks under legislation Supervisor Norman Yee introduced on Tuesday.

“I want to keep our sidewalks safe for people,” Yee said. “Seniors, children, people with disabilities can’t maneuver quickly” to avoid robots. He has other concerns as well: potential job loss for delivery people; privacy issues, because the robots are equipped with cameras; and even terrorism, if someone loads up a robot with explosives.

Yee said he initially considered regulating the robots, but soon concluded that any rules would be almost unenforceable.

Robots that range in size from dorm fridge to shopping cart and go about 3 or 4 mph, the same speed as a pedestrian, are currently trundling along sidewalks in several cities for pilot delivery programs.

San Francisco startup Marble has a handful of robots delivering hot meals ordered on the Yelp Eat24 app in the Mission District and Potrero Hill. Estonia’s Starship Technologies is testing its automated couriers with DoorDash meals in Redwood City, and with Postmates deliveries in Washington. Last year it did a one-day test of its six-wheel robots in San Francisco. South San Francisco’s Dispatch is also developing and testing robots.

Safety is Marble’s top priority, according to CEO and co-founder Matt Delaney. “We look forward to working with the supervisors, neighborhood groups and others to craft smart regulation that balances the needs of pedestrian safety, local businesses, manufacturing and innovation,” he said in a statement.

A San Francisco ban is a bad idea, said Paul Mackie, a spokesman for Virginia’s Mobility Lab, which researches advanced transportation.

“The space-saving R2D2s could fix a lot of our traffic headaches caused by the ever-growing number of delivery vans and trucks that have to park illegally and dangerously to make their dropoffs,” he said in an email. “It doesn’t make any sense for San Francisco leaders to be going backwards like this.”

So far, three cities — San Carlos, Redwood City and Washington — have approved robot deliveries, Mackie said. Virginia and Idaho also allow them, and Wisconsin has passed legislation now awaiting the governor’s signature to allow delivery robots to use sidewalks and crosswalks.

Yee said he’s trying to get ahead of problems. “People don’t think about the negative impacts of these creative new ideas until it’s too late,” he said. He believes for example that the Uber and Lyft cars that flood city streets cause traffic jams. “I’m trying to prevent some of the things that we did not prevent with other innovations” like ride hailing, he said.

The issue is reminiscent of city attitudes toward Segway scooters. While most cities allow them on sidewalks, San Francisco confines them to streets or bike lanes.

Grant Loveless, operations manager for City Segway Tours of San Francisco, said the ban initially hurt business, but that customers adapted. His vehicles go 10.5 mph, 2 mph slower than the factory speed, but faster than pedestrians.

“I don’t think any sane person would be more comfortable riding on the sidewalk with all the foot traffic,” he said.

Might robots likewise get shunted to the bike lane? “I’m not focused on that, but it’s something to discuss,” Yee said. ”Maybe in the future there will be robot lanes.”

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