Access Concerns Take Robots Off Oakland, Pa., Sidewalks

The decision to withdraw Starship Technologies’ automated food delivery robots came after a student flagged issues with the robots blocking access to sidewalks for people using mobility aids like wheelchairs.

by Jamie Martines, The Tribune-Review / October 25, 2019
Shutterstock/blurAZ

(TNS) — Robotics company Starship Technologies has taken its fleet of automated food delivery robots off Oakland’s streets and back to the drawing board after a University of Pittsburgh student this week flagged issues with the robots blocking access to sidewalks.

The company will meet in November with the Oakland Transportation Management Association, which runs the accessibility advocacy program Oakland for All, along with representatives from the City of Pittsburgh and Pitt. Starship will review feedback from the robots’ brief testing period on campus, said Mavis Rainey, executive director of the Oakland Transportation Management Association.

The robots are white, cooler-sized boxes on wheels that can carry up to 100 pounds of cargo, according to the Starship website. The conversation will address how they navigate crowded sidewalks and don’t block curb cuts and ramps that make sidewalks accessible for people using mobility aids like wheelchairs.

“I’m hoping that the feedback is going to be something that is real-life conditions, and something that Starship is going to be able to digest and come back and hopefully make their operations even better,” Rainey said.

The City of Pittsburgh required Starship to meet with Oakland for All, as well as the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, prior to issuing permits for the test, according to a statement from Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

“We did this because we were explicitly concerned about the experience of wheelchair users, blind or low-vision individuals, or others with potential mobility impairments, and only proceeded with the permit once these lines of communication were established,” the statement said. “Starship Technologies has been a good actor in meeting with these groups and acting swiftly when concerns arise.”

Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, said that the organization has not taken a position on the robots. Their role was to host a community meeting in August so that residents could learn more about the robots and raise concerns with Starship staff.

“But we don’t have any responsibility for those robots,” Wilson said.

The Oakland Planning and Development Corporation has not yet been approached about providing input on the Starship robots moving forward, Wilson said.

The decision to withdraw Starship’s automated food delivery robots came after a student flagged issues with the robots blocking access to sidewalks.

Emily Ackerman, a fifth-year Ph.D. student working with the University of Pittsburgh Shoemaker Immunosystems Lab, described her experience with the Starship robots in a series of tweets Monday.

Ackerman uses a wheelchair and relies on curb cuts to access the sidewalk when she crosses the street. But when crossing Forbes Avenue in Oakland on Monday, one of the Starship robots was idling in a curb cut, blocking her entrance from the street to the sidewalk.

“It’s terrifying because there is nothing I can do in the moment,” Ackerman wrote in a tweet, explaining that she could be trapped in the street and in the path of cars if the robots don’t move out of the way fast enough.

Ackerman was not available for an interview this week.

About two hours after Ackerman shared her experience on Twitter, the University of Pittsburgh responded with a tweet saying that “we have paused testing to review the technology” and would investigate the incident.

“Throughout this process, Pitt and Starship have worked with our community partners including city officials, accessibility advocates, and business and community improvement organizations,” a statement from the University of Pittsburgh shared by spokesman Kevin Zwick said. “We have Starship’s commitment to apply their experiences working with other large universities and organizations such as Disability Rights UK and The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in serving our campus community safely and equitably.”

Starship started testing the fleet of about 25 robots in Oakland in October.

A statement shared by Starship vice president of marketing Henry Harris-Burland said that the company will be working to improve robots’ performance as a result of the incident.

“We take matters like this very seriously and have made an update to the mapping at this particular intersection as an added precaution to ensure that additional room is added, as well as reviewing other intersections across campus,” the statement said. “We work with many community organizations, including people with disabilities, with the aim to ensure everyone feels comfortable with this technology and that we are mindful of the needs of various community members.”

Harris-Burland did not respond to questions about how many complaints the company has fielded related to access to sidewalks or how the company evaluates those complaints.

Ackerman isn’t the only one to encounter trouble navigating around the Starship robots.

“It’s a little scary having one of those come at you,” said Alisa Grishman, a wheelchair user who founded the advocacy group Access Mob Pittsburgh.

Maneuvering around an obstacle in the sidewalk isn’t as simple as stepping off the curb or jumping out of the way when you’re using a wheelchair, she said, describing a time she got stuck behind a Starship robot idling in the curb cut for three light cycles.

“Mobility is challenging in itself,” said Heather Tomko, a graduate student in public health and research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. A wheelchair user, she founded the accessibility advocacy group Accessible Youniverse. “But if I come across a robot in the sidewalk, I can’t get around it. The only solution would be to stop, turn around, retrace my steps and find another place to cross.”

Both Grishman and Tomko urged tech companies to include people with disabilities in conversations when technology is still in the development stage, not retroactively.

“Unless you have experience with it, you don’t think about it,” Tomko said.

©2019 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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