Delivery robots—designed to complete last mile logistics—must transit all manner of public spaces, including sidewalks, roadways, and parking lots. As they begin to proliferate, there is growing interest among state and local authorities in regulating their responsible operation. These rules should promote safe deployment while encouraging local adaptation and economic growth.
As robots have gotten better, including with longer battery life and improvements in artificial intelligence, the use of robots to deliver items in cities and suburbs has grown. For example, robots have completed more than 45,000 food deliveries on campus of Purdue University since August 2019. Students can order food from on-campus restaurants like Starbucks, Qdoba, and Panera and have it delivered autonomously to their dorms in about a half hour. Sidewalk delivery robots have been delivering items like pizza in the District of Columbia for several years. And as they get better, their use will grow, potentially and hopefully even allow the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail to our homes.
Autonomous robots such as these promise to boost productivity in many sectors and, as such, to raise American living standards. Not only do they lower the cost of last-mile delivery, but they can also reduce street congestion caused by double-parked delivery trucks. Given the anemic growth in productivity and wages over the last decade, such innovations should be embraced by policymakers at all levels of government.
Regulation of sidewalk delivery robots varies across the United States. Federal laws do not address the operation of delivery robots on public sidewalks leading some jurisdictions to draw from a menu of policies such as insurance requirements, speed limits, and weight requirements to set parameters for their deployment. Generally, if carefully designed, these kinds of provisions make sense and balance public interest safety needs with public interest economic innovation needs.
Others unfortunately go too far and limit the use of sidewalk delivery robots. For example, San Francisco not only requires a permit for each robot being tested but also limits the total number of permits to nine at any given time for the entire city. It further requires a human operator be always present, a restriction intended to ensure the safety of seniors, children, and people with disabilities who might not be able to get out of a robot’s way but, ultimately, makes citywide deployment of the technology impractical.
Working to ensure that municipalities do not pass such innovation-killing regulations, some state legislatures, including Virginia and Wisconsin, have passed laws setting statewide policies on delivery robots that also restrict their municipalities from further regulating delivery robots. Statewide rules are welcome for many companies operating in this space as it reduces compliance costs, but while these laws do not allow local governments to further regulate them, they do permit them to impose bans. There is a risk that such laws might backfire and lead local governments to ban this technology if they do not believe they have another option.
Before they rush to regulate, state and local policymakers should consider three points regarding their role in the deployment of sidewalk delivery robots.
First, regulations should support, not deter delivery robot adoption. Disruptive innovations like sidewalk delivery robots have the potential to boost local economic growth, in part by boosting productivity and enabling consumers to have higher incomes to spend locally. While policymakers have an obligation to intervene to protect the public interest, this public interest includes creating an economic framework that supports innovation-based growth.
Although the urge to regulate new technologies in the name of promoting safety is understandable, the consequences of regulating too broadly can be fraught. For example, burdensome local regulations in the infancy of new technology can limit adoption. Moreover, municipalities risk being seen as anti-innovation, limiting their abilities to grow and attract other technology firms.
Second, state and local policymakers should upgrade the built infrastructure to facilitate delivery robots. State and local officials should revamp and redesign public spaces so that sidewalk delivery robots can operate safely and easily. After all, government officials did the same when automobiles became widespread in the 1910s and 20s. Improving the safety and efficiency of delivery robots will require easing access to public rights-of-way and complementary upgrades to the urban infrastructure including, in some cases, embedding intelligent communications systems in urban spaces.
Equally, state and local officials need to work with innovators so that sidewalk delivery robots can also adapt to local conditions, considering factors such as population and building density, the topography, the condition of existing road and sidewalk infrastructure, and the weather. This complement of approaches can help cities improve the provision of services, improve accessibility for citizens with disabilities, and foster innovative firms and economic activity.
Finally, state and local policymakers should learn from each other’s experience. State and federal governments can complement local initiative by serving as conveners and disseminators of best practices. Some commentators argue that “cities are in fact the best suited sites of experimentation for autonomous vehicles, drones, and other urban robots, and city lawmakers should be allowed autonomy in their effort to regulate the design and deployment of urban robotics in public space.” For example, Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, are partnering with firms to find out what types of ordinances work for them. Of course, it is possible that local choice that is informed by local conditions can yield better adapted outcomes, but that does not guarantee good results. The exercise of this autonomy should be complemented by a comparative review of public policies fostering local economic growth.
Advances in robotics, many driven by improvements in machine learning and computer vision, continue to create new opportunities to leverage robotics in everyday life, so cities should prepare for a future where robots share public spaces with pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles. Rather than jump to preemptive rules that ban the technology or unnecessarily slow its deployment, the right response is to work with community stakeholders to adopt and revise policies that address issues of safety as well as convenience and benefits of implementing adaptive changes over the immediate and long terms.
Image credits: Oregon State University.