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Policymakers Should Make Room for Sidewalk Delivery Robots

The use of robots from companies like Starship Technologies for last-mile deliveries skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and legislators would do well to make them easier to deploy on city sidewalks.

a delivery robot travels through an urban area on a rainy day
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Starship Technologies, the U.S.-Estonian maker of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots, announced in January that it had completed 1 million deliveries since its founding in 2014. This is remarkable growth as it was only six months earlier that the company had completed 500,000 deliveries. While much of this growth has been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting desire for safe, contactless delivery, it also reflects the rapid evolution of technologies like robotics, computer vision and machine learning that are creating new opportunities for innovation in the use of autonomous robots for last-mile delivery.  

Unfortunately, the laws and regulations for these technologies have not always kept pace in the U.S. — in some cases, policymakers are even erecting barriers to the deployment of sidewalk robots. State and local governments have generally taken one of four different approaches to these technologies.

The majority have simply done nothing. Indeed, this is a compelling option for policymakers who want to “do no harm.” Whether intentional or because lawmakers are focused on other priorities, wait-and-see is a perfectly reasonable option for regulating nascent industries that are still developing and present no obvious severe and irreversible risks.

On the other end of the spectrum, some places are banning the sidewalk delivery robots. San Francisco is the most prominent example; in 2017 the City Council enacted an effective ban on the devices, prohibiting them in many parts of the city and allowing only limited testing in other areas. It took almost two years before Postmates obtained the city’s first test permit.

Some places have created limited rules for sidewalk delivery robots, such as requiring operators to obtain general liability insurance, establishing speed or weight limits for the devices, or mandating that the operators must retrieve any abandoned equipment. These types of limited rules are generally reasonable as they establish basic operating parameters for companies deploying sidewalk delivery robots to follow and do not present a roadblock to their deployment.

Finally, some places are rolling out a welcome mat for sidewalk delivery robots. For example, Virginia updated its laws in 2020 to expand the weight limit of delivery robots from 50 pounds to 500 pounds, and requires localities to allow their operation on the side of a roadway if a sidewalk is not available. In addition, Virginia’s law notes that delivery robots “operating on a sidewalk or crosswalk shall have all the rights and responsibilities applicable to a pedestrian.” Pennsylvania has passed a similar law.

This last approach is likely to be the most productive as it focuses on making it possible for businesses to safely deploy the delivery robots while also ensuring the technology does not (literally) tread on humans.

Use of delivery service apps has surged during the pandemic, as consumers go online to order not just meals and groceries, but household goods, prescriptions, laundry and alcohol. In the coming year, delivery robot usage will likely grow substantially to help keep up with demand and become a visible presence in many urban areas.  

But as more businesses signal their intentions to deploy delivery robots, certain groups are mobilizing political opposition in an effort to delay their introduction. Some are raising legitimate concerns that policymakers and industry can and should address, such as ensuring these devices do not limit mobility for people with disabilities by blocking sidewalks or knocking over pedestrians who are blind. These are the types of issues addressed by state and local laws.

But most of the opposition is driven by groups worried that these robots will destroy jobs. It is true that delivery robots will reduce demand for certain types of jobs (mostly low-paying ones), but time and again, automation — whether it is digital switches replacing telephone operators or ATMs replacing bank tellers — has shown that it does not lead to changes in overall employment levels, but it does lead to better and higher-paying jobs. If policymakers support better jobs, they should welcome automation. 

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.
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