Robots Are Stealing Our Sidewalks

We predicted this, and now it is happening.

hello robot
Greetings, Human.

Starship Industries

The State of Pennsylvania has legalized the use of sidewalks for autonomous delivery robots, or personal delivery devices (PDDs), of up to 550 pounds with a speed of 12 miles per hour. As per the memo to the Senate,

"Advances in 'smart' and 'autonomous' technologies have never been more important. The arrival of a global pandemic mandates the continued investment, creation and deployment of innovative technological tools and resources. Personal Delivery Devices (PDDs) are the exact type of technological advancement that can help businesses and residents of the Commonwealth overcome the challenges of these unprecedented times." 

Pennsylvania joins nine other states in allowing PDDs, claiming that they are a great tool for fighting COVID-19. 

"PDDs have quickly become a useful resource to deliver food, medications, and essential goods and supplies to people’s homes. PDDs make it easier for consumers to stay home and avoid community spread, which ultimately aids in the achievement of our goals to mitigate this highly infectious disease."

Cynics like me might think that the big delivery companies are using the pandemic as an excuse to get PDDs approved for sidewalks. Fred Smith of FedEx is pushing his Roxo robots:

"We’re preparing Roxo, the FedEx On Demand Bot, for a second round of testing after last year’s initial on-road tests and are making progress on legislation and regulatory approvals. There is much discussion of how autonomous robots like ours could help within a global pandemic like COVID-19, and we’ll come out of this pandemic with a greater understanding of how FedEx can benefit customers — and society — through these devices."

Why Are We Not Surprised?

Starship on sidewalk
© Starship. Starship

Four years ago, when the Starship delivery robots first landed on these shores, we worried about them taking over the little bit of street not occupied by cars, writing:

"I, for one, do not welcome our new sidewalk overlords, and suspect that they will take over the sidewalks the way cars took over the roads, that soon a few more feet of pavement might be taken away from pedestrians to provide space for robot lanes, and that once again, pedestrians will get screwed by the new technology."

Yet here we are, with robots legally roaming the sidewalks in 10 states. They have been called coolers on wheels, but the Pennsylvania limit of 550 pounds empty could be more like a fridge on wheels, big enough to take up much of the walkway. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, (NACTO) worries:

"In dense areas where pedestrian activity is high, bots would likely clog the sidewalk and inconvenience or endanger people on foot. They should be severely restricted if not banned outright."

In a recent post, we noted how difficult it was to build a fully autonomous car, but PDDs are a much easier problem to solve. They are much slower, are unlikely to kill if they hit someone. But as a roboticist working with Starship noted in another post, “We can get this technology out sooner than self-driving cars because it’s not going to hurt anybody. You can’t kill a pizza. You can ruin it but that’s not a disaster.”

But they could do real damage, particularly to older walkers or people with disabilities. One can also imagine battles in the bike lanes; in Pennsylvania, they are allowed to go up to 25 miles per hour on roads and shoulders, lots of opportunity for conflict there.

In a Twitter discussion, critic Paris Marx painted a larger picture of how these robots might operate in the future, with so many of us working from home. Autonomous robots, like working from home itself, might be one of those things that get a boost from the pandemic; who is going to worry about pedestrians freeloading on the sidewalks when Amazon and Domino's have work to do? As self-described futurist Bernard Marr writes in Forbes:

"After the outbreak is controlled, we won't go 'back to normal' but will settle into a new normal. That new normal will likely have autonomous delivery robots in our workplaces, public spaces, and on our streets."

It is likely that pedestrian advocates and urban activists will soon have another fight on their hands.

View Article Sources
  1. "Senate Co-Sponsorship Memoranda." Pennsylvania State Senate, 2020.