Looks like Starship’s delivery robots may be blocked from roaming the city streets of Madison, WI. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the local Transportation Policy and Planning Board there unanimously recommended a measure yesterday that would prohibit the delivery robots everywhere in the city except for the University of Wisconsin.
Starship robots have been running around the UW campus making food and drink deliveries since November of last year. Madison’s Assistant City Attorney told The State Journal that the purpose of the proposed rule is to prevent other companies from coming in and jamming up the city’s sidewalks with robots.
The new rule wouldn’t impact the robots that are currently making deliveries to students, faculty and staff at UW. It would just bar them from expanding outside of campus. The new rule would not prevent other robot delivery companies from also operating on the UW campus.
One of the most intriguing aspects of robot delivery is watching how cities around the country have to grapple with the issue in real time. How do you balance the convenience robot delivery with equity and accessibility issues, potential losses in city revenues and liability issues? This is all new territory and cities have to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.
In 2017, San Francisco enacted tight restrictions around robot delivery, but recently relented a bit and gave Postmates a permit to test its Serve robot in the city. Cities like Scottsdale, AZ and Houston have been popular testing grounds for autonomous vehicles. In 2018, Dallas, TX allowed robot delivery on select sidewalks. Kiwi’s robots were allowed to roam the sidewalks of Berkeley, CA. And last year Washington state passed a law allowing robot deliveries (under certain conditions) statewide.
From a business perspective, Madison’s move probably won’t have too much of an impact on Starship. The company is focusing on college and corporate campuses, and has a growing number of delivery programs running on colleges around the country.
From a city perspective, I can’t really fault Madison for this move. I think delivery robots like Starship’s are inevitable as they can run all day and night and potentially make food delivery cheaper and more accessible to everyone. But there are real issues surrounding their deployment on public streets. It’s fine to put a pause on robots to figure things out, it just shouldn’t be a full stop on the issue.