Will autonomous delivery robots soon be pushing pedestrians off the sidewalks?

hello robot
© Starship Industries

Pedestrians often complain that there is no room on the sidewalks (and in New York City, people are taking to the streets because of it), and it’s because the cars stole all the space and everyone else is fighting over scraps. And while we worry about how pedestrians will deal with autonomous vehicles on the roads, now they will also have to worry about autonomous delivery vehicles on the sidewalks.

starship on sidewalk© Starship

Vehicles like the new Starship, designed in Estonia, tested in London and soon coming to Washington DC. CEO Allan Martinson describes it in the Washington Post:

“It’s basically a mobile phone on wheels,” Martinson said. Its low speed and weight — 4 miles per hour and 40-pounds max — also short-circuit safety concerns, he added. “It’s basically a rolling suitcase. If you go home and try to kill yourself with a suitcase, you’d have to be very inventive.”

Starship in London© Starship

The city has even written a bylaw about them, Personal Delivery Device Pilot Act of 2016:

The act defines "personal delivery devices," or PDDs, as "a device powered by an electric motor, for use primarily on sidewalks, capable of: transporting items with or without an operator directly controlling the device; identifying and yielding to pedestrians, bicyclists, other lawful users of public space, and property; and navigating public thoroughfares; and interpreting traffic signals and signs at crosswalks."

The rules say that AV cannot weigh more than 50 pounds or go faster than 10 miles an hour. That’s still pretty big and pretty fast; In the video it appears to be more polite but being filmed for a promotional video, it's probably putting its best wheel forward. At least a robot will likely follow the rules of right-of-way, which I hope continue to favour the pedestrian over the robot.

From a green point of view, there is a lot to be said for this. If you are going to order in, which more and more people are doing, this takes up a lot less space and uses a lot less fuel than a car and driver. It might well follow the rules of the road, unlike the bicycle delivery guy. It’s less obnoxious than a hamburger-dropping drone.

man looking at starship© Starship

But I can’t help thinking that once again, the pedestrians are getting short shrift here. Not one of the articles on the starship even mentioned the issue of sidewalk capacity, of whether this is just yet another slicing away of more public space for private transport.

In Washington, they are banned from the Central Business District. And in most of the photos, the Starships are rolling through suburbia. However Engadget's Matt Brian notes that in their London trial, “, the 4mph robots will operate as a "last-mile" solution, delivering food to customers within a 2-3 mile radius.” At 4 MPH that is a 40 minute delivery time, nobody is going to accept that. These really will only work where there is a minimum density to support shorter trips. Or they are going to have to run much faster.

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.

starship sidewalk© Starship

Tags: Self-driving car | Walking | Washington DC

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