Think about how crazy your dog gets chasing a Roomba around the living room. Multiple that chaos by several hundred and you have folks on sidewalks jumping out of the way as robots that resemble oversized canister vacuum cleaners scurry along their appointed rounds making food deliveries.
At least that’s the thinking of San Francisco City Supervisor Norman Yee. As he remarked to Government Technology, “I want to keep our sidewalks safe for people,” Yee said. “Seniors, children, people with disabilities can’t maneuver quickly” (to avoid robots).
The San Francisco area is ground zero for testing of robotics delivery agents. Marble, a venture-backed startup based in San Francisco has its robots delivering meals in the Mission District and Portero Hill for those using the Yelp Eat24 app. Starship Technologies is working with DoorDash in Redwood City while Postmates ran a test in San Francisco for one day last year. On the brink of joining the autonomous delivery mix is Dispatch, a South San Francisco startup.
The future of Personal Delivery Devices—as they are called in legal circles—is wrapped up in a battle of often conflicting interests. Restaurants look at their cost-saving potential with the ability to win loyal customers with quick, efficient delivery. For some chefs, PDDs can allow such visionaries as Anthony Strong to start virtual restaurants where home delivery replaces the need to have a physical dining establishment. In addition, using a fleet of robots can allow grocery stores and restaurants to offer delivery to suburban areas considered too costly to serve.
Early in its life cycle, autonomous delivery has met few legal challenges. San Carlos and Redwood City in California and Washington, D.C. have approved robotic delivery. Virginia and Idaho permit them at the state level, and in Wisconsin, a bill awaiting signature will permit robots to use sidewalks and crosswalks. Legislation, however, is not that straightforward with some companies using the law to keep competition at bay. For example, as a story in Recode points out, the Virginia law—drafted with the help of Starship Technologies– only permits robots under 50 pounds to be legally sanctioned; Marble’s autonomous delivery exceed that weight restriction.
While its impact can be debated, there is no debate that robots will replace workers in many sectors, including home delivery services. Given the entry level of such work, it’s likely not to be a hot button issue among labor leaders whose focus will be more on robots replacing skilled workers in manufacturing. As for robots replacing chefs—that should be a more interesting matter.
Also overlooked by many is the impact PDDs have on crowded sidewalks. As Treehugger.com puts it: “It all seems so quick and simple: design a cute little delivery AV and just let them loose onto the sidewalks. Because nobody ever asks what the pedestrians think, they don’t matter.”
“People don’t think about the negative impacts of these creative new ideas until it’s too late,” San Francisco’s Yee 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.