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May 18, 2017

San Francisco’s diminutive delivery robots trundle into trouble

by John_A

Why it matters to you

The technology for these delivery robots is improving all the time, but it could still be a while before we find ourselves strolling alongside them on the sidewalk.

The machines may be itching to get on with the robot apocalypse, but there are still folks out there keen to put up legislative barriers that may inadvertently delay the launch of the long-awaited uprising.

While a growing number of cities have been green-lighting trials for wheel-based delivery robots, a San Francisco supervisor has decided they’re a safety hazard and wants them banned, according to Recode.

Startups such as Starship Technologies and Marble have recently been testing out their tech on the city’s sidewalks, with the latter partnering with Yelp Eat24 to deliver take-out orders to hungry customers. The robots have a top speed of 4 mph and carry their consignment in a closed compartment, navigating the streets using multiple cameras, an array of sensors, and GPS software.

But supervisor Norman Yee is worried they could cause a pedestrian pile-up and wants them taken off the streets. He’s particularly concerned about seniors, those with disabilities, and children, as he believes these groups are at most risk of colliding with the robots.

Yee told Recode that San Francisco’s sidewalks are “made for people, not robots,” adding that a law banning the diminutive delivery bots would be “consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” Yee said talks with the companies failed to satisfy him, prompting the official on Tuesday to propose legislation banning the machines.

In trials conducted in San Francisco to date, the robots have had a human supervisor walking close by to ensure everything runs smoothly, and no calamitous accidents have so far been reported.

But as San Francisco mulls a ban, states such as Virginia and Idaho seem more open to the technology, recently giving the go ahead to companies who want to try out similar tech on their turf. In addition, Starship Technologies, for example, is currently conducting tests in Silicon Valley just a short distance from San Francisco, as well as on the other side of the country in Washington, D.C.

It’s not certain that Yee will get his way, but the concerns raised highlight the difficulties faced by firms hoping to transform the way we receive delivered goods at home or at the office, with developers of delivery drones facing even tougher regulations.

We’ve reached out to both Starship and Marble about Yee’s proposal and will update when we hear back.

While it’s easier to see why regulators are twitchy about warming to the idea of drones for deliveries, fear that ground-based delivery bots could also cause chaos is something we’ve heard little about until now. It suggests, however, that the technology has a lot more than sidewalks to navigate before it can truly be set free on the nation’s streets.

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