San Francisco cracks down on delivery robots

13 December 2017

San Francisco officials have voted to severely restrict where delivery robots can go in the latest turn in the long-running saga between tech companies and the city’s municipal legislators.

In a five to one vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors handed down strict regulation on cargo bots, which have been piloted on city sidewalks over the past months.

Norman Yee, city supervisor, said he initially proposed the regulations amid concerns the robots could eventually take over city sidewalks.

“Maybe five years from now, when we have 20,000 robots roaming around on the streets and people have to walk on the streets with cars, maybe then we’ll do something,” he said.

“That seems to be the problem we have in San Francisco and I don’t want to let things get out of hand again.” 

Under the new rules, companies will be limited to three robots each, with nine total robots for the entire city.

The robots will also be relegated to low population industrial areas, limited to 3mph and even in permitted areas, may only operate on sidewalks that are 6ft wide.

The new rules are the strictest in the nation and a departure from the approach of states like Idaho and Virginia, where new rules actively encourage robot delivery.

A range of companies have been trialling small robots, which use sensors and lasers similar to self-driving cars to navigate their routes and deliver food and other goods. 

Robotics company Marble partnered with food delivery service Yelp Eat 24 in April to test out its four-wheeled delivery bot, the size of an office photocopy machine.

The Marble/Yelp trail was confined to select San Francisco neighbourhoods and the robots, which run autonomously but are monitored by workers at Marble in real time, were also accompanied by human chaperones during testing.

A month later, however, Yee proposed a ban on the use of the technology in the city, citing pedestrian safety concerns but after a backlash, he amended his proposal, replacing his ban with strict limitations. 

Yee said his move was motivated by written complaints sent in from angry pedestrians and local disability activist community groups. 

“Not every innovation is all that great for society,” he said.

“When it come to being proactive about the development of common sense regulations for commuter shuttles or the sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, somehow we have sent the signal that it is acceptable to act now and ask for forgiveness later.”

Other robot delivery companies affected by the new rules include Starship Technologies and Companies that offer delivery by flying drone, such as Flirtey, are not affected.

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